Sunday 11 February 2018


Rabbi Yehudah Moscato's Kol Yehudah commentary on the Kuzari.


Rabbi Yehudah Moscato (1530-1593) was an Italian chief rabbi, poet, philosopher, musician, 
professional speaker - and most notably,  a Kabbalist who followed a unique and unusual form of 

Kuzari with Rabbi Yehudah Moscato's Kol Yehudah commentary.

He is best known as the author of one of the first commentaries on the Kuzari (by R. Yehudah haLevi,  1075-1141), entitled Kol Yehudah, which has since then, always been printed in publications of the Kuzari together with the main text.[1]


R. Yehudah Moscato tried to synthesise the ethos of the Renaissance with that of Judaism because he believed that all knowledge had originally come from Torah. It was just that the other nations had been granted custodianship of the arts and sciences and that it was now time for Judaism to embrace and reclaim them.

He wrote: “Let it not vex you because I draw on extraneous sources. For to me, these foreign streams flow from our own Jewish wells. The nations of the earth derived their wisdom from the sages. If I often make use of information gathered from secular books, it is only because I know the true origin of that information.”


Like many of the Italian Renaissance rabbis of his era, R. Yehudah Moscato was extremely well educated both religiously and secularly.  He studied many languages and disciplines yet firmly believed that all ‘primary’ languages had their source in Hebrew just as all science and knowledge had their origins in Torah.

In Kol Yehudah, R. Moscato wrote that speech is the unique characteristic of the human being, as it is not found among the animals (although they do communicate with each other). Because of this gift of speech, humankind had to use it elegantly and accurately. Speech could lend the individual great dignity and reverence.[2]

He believed that Hebrew, the language of the first man, Adam, was not a human invention but a gift from G-d.[3] Therefore, elements of the original language, Hebrew or lingua Adamica, were to be found in all other languages as well.


R. Yehudah Moscato must have been one of the first rabbis to emphasise the role of ‘form’ as a worthy expression of Torah Judaism. While most of the other rabbis were interested in ‘function’ or ‘substance’  – in laws and Halachik discourse - R. Moscato showed that presentation, delivery and finesse were of equal importance.

Rabbi Yehudah Moscato's Nefutzot Yehudah containing his sermons.

For example, while delivering his famous sermons[4], he wanted to transfix the congregation to his message in a beautiful and almost artistic manner. For him, the delivery of the message was as important as the content. The finesse of Judaism was not to be overshadowed by the functionality of its dogma.

His sermons were so well constructed and delivered that he even attracted quite a large audience of non-Jews who were eager to lend him their ear.[5]


 R. Yehudah Moscato studied under R. Azarai dei Rossi  (author of Meor Einayim) and became the Chief Rabbi of Mantua in 1587

However, unlike his controversial teacher who sought to discredit the historicity of much of the non-legal, or Aggadic writings of the Talmud, and who questioned the accuracy of the (then over one thousand-year-old) Aggadic medical and scientific knowledge – R. Moscato took a different approach: 

Although he too was challenged to the same extent as his teacher, by rabbinic Aggadah and their understanding of science and history: - instead of denying the intrinsic worth of Aggadah, he interpreted the non-legal literature philosophically and tried to create a moral imperative to enhance its validity.

[It must be pointed out that, clearly, at no stage did either the teacher or his student question the Halachik veracity of Talmudic literature. This is obvious, as both were respected rabbinic leaders - but it must nevertheless be reiterated so that there can be no misunderstanding.]


One of the reasons why R. Moscato was drawn to the Kuzari of R. Yehudah haLevi, was because it was well rooted in older forms of Kabbalah as it drew from Sefer Yetzirah and the Heichalot[7] literature.

And just like R. Moscato had given a philosophical slant to Talmudic Aggadah - which allowed him not to have to take it literally - he similarly took the ‘magic’ or ‘mechanics’ out of Kabbalah and dealt with it on an interpretive and philosophical level.
Although R. Moscato references Sefer Yetzirah, he says: “Do not think that those issues will be interpreted according to the way of Kabbalah...we shall not enjoy their interpretation as dealing with that wonderous wisdom, even as much as a small finger...”[8]
In other words, he was prepared to quote from the early mystical literature but often ignored its intended theosophical (mystically based) interpretations, and instead substituted his own non-mystical, philosophical, moral and ethical explanations.

It is interesting to note that the more recent Zohar (as opposed to the more ancient Heichalot literature) was already well known in Italy at that time, as editions of the Zohar were printed in Mantua during the early 1500’s - yet R. Moscato (although he did also quote, sparingly, from the Zohar[9]) was more drawn to the earlier Kabbalah.[10]

According to Moshe Idel[11], another example of R. Moscato ignoring the overtly mystical aspects of Kabbalah,
can be seen by his selected and sparse quoting of the Safed Kabbalists[12], where, once again, he appears to disregard their theosophy (explicit mysticism), and instead focuses on philosophy.

Most importantly, however, is the blatant and conspicuous absence of any mention of the Ari Zal (R. Yitzchak Luria 1534-1572) who was the most well known of all Safed Kabbalists, yet is not quoted by R. Moscato. This omission could not have been by mistake.

There can be only one explanation for this omission: The Ari Zal expounded a unique and particular brand of Kabbalah, known as Lurianic Kabbalah, which was boldly and unashamedly anti-philosophical and overtly theurgical (supernaturally based).[13]

Lurianic Kabbalahused a plethora of anthropomorphic (ascribing human attributes to G-d) terminology, sexual imagery, and a theurgical (emphasis on the supernatural component of humanity and the universe, in its) understanding of the commandments.[14]

In other words, R. Moscato did not want to quote the Lurianic system of Kabbalah because of its intense mysticism. Apparently, it was nigh impossible for R. Moscato to soften that particular system of mysticism by creating a philosophical alternative as he was able to do with some of the other forms of mysticism.

This was not an approach unique to R. Moscato, but one which typified many of the Italian ‘Kabbalists’ of that time. Perhaps this Italian approach could be referred to as a ‘mild and non-pervasive’  school of mysticism.

Because of this unique and ‘softer’ approach to Kabbalah, according to Idel “none of those born in Italy would qualify as an ‘authentic’  Kabbalist.”

In general, the Safed Kabbalists were largely ignored by the Italians because they insisted on “following the gist of the Zoharic literature, anchored both in theosophy (mystically based material) and theurgy (supernaturally based material[15]).”

Furthermore, no Italian Kabbalist wrote a commentary on the Zohar during the 1500’s. This in contrast to numerous commentaries written in Safed during that same time period.[16]

Rabbi Yehuda Moscato's Nefutzut Yehudah.


Rabbi Yehuda Moscato and his colleagues did something that was, most likely, never done before in Jewish history. Prior to him, there had always been two very distinct and theologically opposing schools of thought; the School of Rationalism (Rambam) and the School of Mysticism (Ramban)These schools were quite separate from each other and produced extreme hard-liners on both sides. Rationalists, for example, had difficulties with the way the common people perceived the notion of angels (see KOTZK BLOG 110) while mystics were having daily angelic visitations (see KOTZK BLOG 153).

R. Moscato’s unique contribution to Judaism may have been the fact that he found some common 
ground between the two schools. So much so that its very hard to define him as either a rationalist or a mystic, although he clearly had elements of both.

Some may perceive this ‘crossover’ to be a weakness.

Others, who grapple with the pull from both worlds, may find the Italian approach an interesting alternative to ponder.




An example of the anti-philosophical position taken by the Zohar can be seen through the lens of R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) who frequently drew from the Zohar and the teachings of the Ari Zal:

The Rebbe (R. Nachman) emphatically denounced all books dealing with philosophy(including Rambam’s Guide for the perplexed)[17]...But wisdom such as that of the Torah is not found there at all. The Rebbe said that one who knows nothing of such books, but walks a simple path and fears HaShem’s punishment, is fortunate[18]. The only way to begin to serve HaShem is through fear of retribution...When a person becomes involved in philosophy, his mind becomes filled with doubts and questions...This is why we never find a person who has become upstanding and G-d-fearing through the study of philosophy...The severe prohibition against studying such works has been noted elsewhere.[19]

Commenting on this R. Z.A. Rosenfeld writes:

Rabbeinu zal (R. Nachman) speaks very strongly against the books written by philosophers – those who delve deeply into questions about faith, those who write about this with seeming authority while actually it is the most sacrilegious thing to do. More than writing about it, Rabbeinu zal says that it is forbidden for a person to read this, because this is not the way of a Jew...even if these books are written by Jewish philosophers, or even bt the great philosophers of the past.

The Zohar haKadosh, too condemns them[20]...Therefore Rabbeinu zal says, ‘Ashrei’ - fortunate and blessed is that person who has never looked into those books, who has never attended a lesson dealing with philosophy. Fortunate is the person who has never contaminated his mind, fortunate [21]"the person who never got that germ in his brain that can actually destroy a person’s soul.

[1] The Kol Yehudah was R. Moscato’s most precious work. He worked on it till he died and his children published it after his death. The task was rather technical for R. Moscato as he used various versions of Ibn Tabbon’s translations from the original Arabic, as well as the lesser-known translation of Yehudah ben Yitzchak Kardinal.

See A History of Jewish Literature: Italian Jewry in the Renaissance era, by Israel Zinberg, p. 106.

[2] See Kol Yehudah II, 68.

[3] See Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by David Ruderman, p. 80. See also Kol Yehudah II,72.

[4] These sermons were later printed in a book called Nefutzot Yehudah. There is much debate over the issue of which language these sermons were delivered in. According to Robert Bonfil, they were delivered in Italian, while according to Joseph Dan, they were delivered in Hebrew.

[5] See: A History of Judaism: From Its Origins to the Present, by Martin Goodman, p. 368.

[6] The term ‘magic’ is used here very loosely and not in its usual sense - nor in the sense that it would be used as relating to Practical Kabbalah - but simply in the sense of attempting to ‘mechanically’ influence the Divine Being by affecting certain appropriate activities here on earth at appropriate times. An example would be the Kabbalistic practice of not reciting Psalms after nightfall so as not to draw down the dominant negative ‘night energies’.
[7] Also known as the Merkava and Heichalot literature which date back to Biblical and early rabbinic times (predating the Zohar).
[8] Kol Yehudah IV, 83-84. (Translation by Moshe Idel.)
[9] Idel, however, is quick to point out that, to the best of his knowledge, this was not in a theosophical manner. Also, R. Moscato never quoted from the later Tikkunei Zohar (printed in 1560) which was ‘densely theosophical’.
[10] Indecently, apropos the debate over when the Zohar was actually written, R. Moscato did believe it was earlier than the 1200’s as he refers to the writer(s) as ‘chachameinu zichronam livracha’, our Sages of blessed memory. See KOTZK BLOG 87, for Mysteries B
ehind the Origins of the Zohar..
[11] See: On Kabbalah in R. Judah Moscato’s Qol Yehudah, by Moshe Idel.
[12] He knew of and mentioned three contemporary Safed Kabbalists: R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575), R. Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz (1500-1576), and R. Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570).
[13] See note 6.
[14] Moshe Idel ibid. Parenthesis mine.
  [15] Theurgy is also defined as ‘a system of white magic’. This is a definition of the English term ‘theurgy’. For an understanding of its usage in this context, see note 6.

[16] See: Preachers of the Italian Ghetto, edited by David B. Ruderman, p. 56.

[17] Parenthesis mine, but Rambam’s work is specifically referenced in other writings of R. Nachman.
[18] It should be pointed out that regarding this emphasis on punishment, R. Nachman acknowledges that in this regard, he differs from the Ari Zal, who ‘belittles the mere fear of punishment’ (ibid.)
[19] Sichot haRan #5.
[20] See Zohar Ki Tissa 188 a-b.
[21] See Rebbe Nachman’s Soul, compiled and edited by Rabbis Shlomo Katz, p. 59-66.

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