Sunday, 26 May 2019


12th-century Tosafist Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shor of Orleans, Northern France.


In this article, we will look at some Tosafist rabbis who stood out from their colleagues as being exceptions because they refused to believe that G-d has a body!

I draw, once again, from the scholarly research of Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel[1], who has shown how the Tosafist rabbis - who lived in Northern France and Germany between the 12th and 13th centuries[2] - were largely mystics and were heavily influenced by the German pietists known as the Chasidei Ashkenaz.


Already from around the late 1100s, the Chassidei Ashkenaz were reviving an older form of mystical literature known as Heichalot literature[3] which flourished in the post-Talmudic period.

This mystical literature, according to Professor Kanarfogel, preceded the appearance of works like the Zohar and Bahir and was not yet familiar with the system of the Ten Sefirot.

There were a number of Tosafists who got involved with this theurgical[4] (magical) system of Kabbalah and used Divine and angelic names in an attempt to achieve higher spiritual states and manipulate certain outcomes.

Many Ba’alei haTosafot got involved in what Professor Kanarfogel refers to as ‘white magic’.
This revelation is quite astonishing as the Tosafists were generally regarded as the more sober and legally precise of the Talmudic analysts and commentators, and are not usually associated with this type of mysticism. [For more, see here and Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]


Perhaps more surprisingly, the Tosafists indulged extensively in anthropomorphism. This means that they attributed some type of form or shape to G-d. Put differently, they were corporealists who believed that G-d has a body. [See The Notion that G-d has a Body – In Early and Modern Rabbinic Writing.]


As to be expected, it was Rambam (1135-1204) who severely countered this belief of many of the Tosafists that G-d has a body. According to Rambam, G-d could only be perceived in the mind and imagination of the beholder, but He could never manifest in any physical form. 

Rambam maintained similar views with regard to the Angels, which also could only be perceived in the mind or in a dream or vision but not in reality. [See Angels in Rabbinic Literature.]

Interestingly, no one is quite sure where to position Rashi in the spectrum of debate between corporealism and non-corporealism.

On the other hand, Rabbi Avraham ben David or Raavad (1125-1198), was a famous Talmudic commentator and father of Kabbalah[5] who frequently argued with Rambam. He clearly disagreed with Rambam’s position that believing in a form of corporeality was against the Torah, because ‘many people even greater and better than Rambam’ did espouse of some form of corporeality.[6]

Although Rambam lived (in Egypt[7]) during the period of the Tosafists, it took some time for Rambam’s rationalist writings to penetrate the region of Northern France and Germany where the Tosafists lived. And when his views were eventually known by the Tosafists, they were largely met with fierce theological hostility.


However, although Rambam and the Tosafists often crossed swords, R. Kanarfogel points out that:

“...contrary to some of the assumptions...a number of northern Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries plainly assert that the Divine presence cannot be characterized or defined through anthropomorphic terms of physical dimensions.”


One such exception was the northern French Tosafist (who studied with Rashi’s grandson Rabbeinu Tam) namely, R. Yosef ben Yitzchak of Orleans (d. 1171).

Besides his valuable computations regarding the Jewish calendar, he wrote many Selichot, and also a commentary on the Torah according to the peshat (plain, literal and non-Midrashic interpretation) under the name Yosef Bechor Shor.

R. Yosef Bechor Shor begins his commentary on Genesis 1:26:

“Let us make man in our image and form.”

To which he comments:

“This [verse] does not mean that these [G-d and man] actually have a comparable physical image, for no physical conception or image can be attributed to the One above.”

This simple and rather benign interpretation or commentary, which wouldn’t really attract our attention if read today, would have been taken as somewhat subversive during his time and in his place. 
Through this simple sentence he was distancing himself from, and challenging, a core belief of the vast majority of his Tosafist colleagues who did believe that G-d had a form.

Although a peshatist or literalist, he interprets all the various scriptural references to G-d having eyes and hands etc., as a means of expressing lofty concepts to the average man in a way that he can understand and relate to. He refers to the prophet Ezekiel’s visions, where G-d and other heavenly figures appeared, as occurring only within the ‘prophet’s mind’ and not as appearing in reality.

He continues that the same may also be said also for the Talmudic sages who, according to the Talmud, recorded how G-d and the angels appeared to them.


On reading Yosef Bechor Shor’s commentary it is very tempting to think that he may have been acquainted with the writings of Rambam. Although they lived at the same time and although it is possible that Rambam’s writings may have penetrated from Egypt to Northern France before R. Yosef died[8], Kanarfogel suggests that this is highly unlikely. Instead, Kanarfogel understands Yosef Bechor Shor to be:

“a clear-thinking rabbinic scholar who had to confront the vexing but obvious dilemma...How can God, who is essentially non-corporeal, appear to man in seemingly human form?”

Furthermore, he points out that R. Yosef Bechor Shor’s commentary on Genesis “is not expressed in authentic philosophical terms”, as perhaps one would expect from a Maimonidean student or reader.
If Kanarfogel is correct, it is astounding how Yosef Bechor Shor intrinsically and naturally came up with so many other rationalist ideas which also correspond to Rambam.

These include Yosef Bechor Shor’s view on the sacrifices, which also happen correspond with Rambam’s view that they were granted to a people who had just emerged from idolatrous practices and were familiar with a primitive system of sacrifices, as a type of temporary concession - until they advanced intellectually, weaned themselves off the practice, and developed a more ethereal form of communicating with G-d. [See Outspoken Rabbinical Views Claiming that the Torah Recorded Superstitions of its Day.]

Similarly, Yosef Bechor Shor held a belief consistent with Rambam that many details of Kashrut were incorporated into the Law for hygienic reasons.[9]


Whichever way one chooses to explain the similarities between the Yosef Bechor Shor and Rambam - Yosef Bechor Shor appears to have been an exception among the Tosafists who generally were mystics who took Midrashim and anthropomorphisms quite literally.

This is borne out by a statement (in a letter) of R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles, a scholar from Provence (Southern France) and a great supporter of Rambam during the Maimonidean Controversies, who wrote quite tellingly:  

“[T]he majority of the rabbinic scholars in northern France [accept] anthropomorphism.”[10]

Lest one be suspicious of this letter from a supporter of Rambam - in another letter from a mystic and opponent of Rambam, the Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) to the rabbis of Northern France (around 1232) -  he mentions that the Tosafists insisted that Rambam was mistaken in believing that G-d has no shape or form.[11]


Kanarfogel, however, goes on to cite a number of other Tosafists who also seemed to rebel against the prevailing anthropomorphic view. These Tosafists include:

a) Rashbam.

b) R. Aharon ben Yosef haCohen and his Sefer haGan[12]

c) R. Yitzchak ben Yehuda haLevi and his Pa’aneach Raza[13] which included quotations from Rambam himself!

d) R. Avraham ben Azriel of Bohemia[14] and his Arugat haBosem.

e) R. Isaiah di Trani[15] (or Rid, 1170-1240) and his peshatist Torah commentary Nimukei Chumash, which quotes at length, on three occasions, from Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed)! 

In his commentary on Genesis 1:26 he writes about how he encountered some Magshimim (anthropomorphists) who believed that G-d had a body - and he used the Moreh Nevuchim to challenge that approach!


Kanarfogel’s concludes by referring to the letter of Rambam’s supporter, R. Shmuel of Marseilles - mentioned earlier - claiming that most of the Tosafists of Northern France were corporealists:

“Such a claim about the ‘rabbis of northern France’ as a whole now appears to be exaggerated, certainly with respect to leading northern French Talmudic scholars or the rabbinic elite...In any case, the overall spiritual outlook of the Tosafists appears to be much more variegated than we are accustomed to thinking and the non-anthropomorphism strain has a number of distinguished adherents.”


It is fascinating, for a searcher of the truth behind the Hashkafic views of the various rabbinic movements, to see just how difficult it sometimes is to arrive at that truth.

My impression, and I may be wrong, is that Rabbi Professor Kanarfogel experienced just such intellectual angst. In a sense, it was he who pioneered the notion that the Tosafists were not just Talmudic commentators but were also mystics. Not many scholars were previously aware of this.

Yet his intellectual honesty brought him to a counter-intuitive conclusion, through this research, that yes they were mystics but many Tosafists also had a rationalist streak, certainly when it came to the question of whether G-d has a form.

Consider the fact is that we have descriptions like this:

“A letter written from Narbonne to Spain in the 1230s severely ridicules the ‘great men of Israel among the Zarefatim [French] and their scholars, their heads and men of understanding,’ for their magical uses of Divine Names, angels, and demons through conjuration, referring to them as ‘madmen full of delusions’ and the like.”

Yet at the same time we now know that some important Tosafists sailed very closely to Rambam when it came to opposing Hagshama (corporealism or anthropomorphism).

How exactly, then, do we define the Tosafists when our spectrum starts with ‘madmen full of delusions’- incorporates Kabbalistic traditions - delves into ‘white magic’ - runs through complicated Talmudic commentary - and ends somewhere close to Rambam’s rationalist Guide for the Perplexed?

Furthermore, a great irony exists:

Many of the Tosefists who were influenced by the depths of mysticism, somehow imagined the concretization of the Infinite - while those under the influence of Rambam and the breadth of the rational mind, would not allow the Infinite to be constricted within the physical.

[1] Anthropomorphism and Rationalist Modes of Thought in Medieval Ashkenaz: The Case of R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, by Ephraim Kanarfogel.
[2] Essentially the Tosafist period encompassed the two centuries between Rashi (1040- 1105) and R. Meir of Rothenberg  (d. 1293). Many of the Tosafists were either the family or students of Rashi.
[3] Not to be confused with Merkava literature which is mysticism dating from a much earlier period.
[4] Theurgy is defined as: ‘the technique of compelling...a supernatural power to do or refrain from doing something.’
[5] Raavad is credited with drawing up the diagram of the Etz Chaim, Tree of Life with the positions of the Kabbalistic Sefirot. The actual drawings were done by his son, Yitzchak the Blind.
[6] See Raavad’s commentary on Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7.
[7] Because he lived in Egypt, he was not regarded as a Tosafist.
[8] R Yosef passed away in 1171 and Rambam passed away in 1204.
[9] Cf. Perushei R. Yosef Bechor Shor Deut. 18:22 and Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim 3:48.
[10] MS Neofiti 11, fol. 210v.
[11] Kitvei haRamban, Chavel, vol. 1, 345f.
[Interesting, it seems that Ramban may have actually sided with Rambam on this issue because he also writes:
 a) The important Tosafist R. Yitzchak ben Avraham, who also studied under Rabbeinu Tam and commented on several Talmudic treatises, endorsed Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. And Ramban mentions this in the context of Hagshama or anthropomorphism.

b) Ramban cites from R. Eleazar of Worms (one of the last major members of Chasidei Ashkenaz, which - as mentioned earlier - was instrumental in influencing the Tosafists towards mysticism) who also did not concur with the prevailing views regarding anthropomorphism.

c) And Ramban mentions that there were ‘right-minded’ (although unnamed) Chachmei Tzarfat (rabbis of northern France) who did not concur with the prevailing view either.]

[12] Gan has the numerical value of 53. Sefer haGan is a Torah commentary on the 53 weekly Torah portions.
[13] Pa’aneach Raza was composed around 1280 which places it at the end of the Tosafist period.
[14] R. Avraham was a student of R. Eleazar of Worms and compiled Arugat haBosem in 1235.
[15] Also known as Yeshaya haAshkenazi.

Sunday, 19 May 2019


But the future Temple which we await...will descend from Heaven. (Rashi on Sukkah 41a)


In this article, we will examine the concept of Mashiach as portrayed by two very different schools of Jewish thought which emerged simultaneously during the period of the Tosafists. We will attempt to show how the Messiah was defined very differently by both Rambam and the Tosafists.


The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). The term Tosafists generally refers to the rabbis of the early period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) who lived specifically in Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany).

Although Rambam lived during that same period (1135-1204), he is not regarded as a Tosafist because he lived in Egypt.

I draw from Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel[1] who is a specialist in the period of the Tosafists and particularly in their unpublished manuscripts.


Professor Kanarfogel explains, that we only know part of the Tosafists’ story from their published and printed works – yet their unpublished manuscripts reveal so much more about who they actually were. And these unpublished manuscripts - some only recently discovered - reveal a very different side to their authors from the way they are commonly perceived.

According to Kanarfogel’s research into these unpublished manuscripts, the Tosafists emerge not just as Talmudic commentators but also, to a large extent, as mystics – influenced as they were by the Chasidei Ashkenaz. [For more, see Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]

On the other hand, Rambam was a rationalist and so the stage is set for a showdown of divergent views regarding the personality and era of Mashiach. [See The Maimonidean Controversies.]


R. Kanarfogel shows how the Tosafists were mystics and how they also (or therefore?) had a: “tendency to interpret aggadah literally.” This means that they also generally took Midrashim more literally than allegorically.

This tendency led to Tosafists, like the 13th century Moshe Taku, to describe the Messianic era as follows:

“[W]e will then become familiar with and experience Ruach haKodesh [the Spirit of Holiness], the fire falling [from Heaven] on the sacrifices, and the closeness of the Holy Presence in the pillar of fire and the cloud, just as it had been during the Exodus from Egypt. After a time, with the intensification of our redemption and enlightenment, [we will see] the resurrection of the dead, and the descent of the [third] Temple...”[2]

R. Moshe Taku continues by claiming that during a certain stage of the Messianic era:

“...the righteous people...will be given special angel-like forms...and have no need for food or drink...a state of existence that will continue into Olam haBah."


It should be pointed out that the notion of the Third Temple miraculously descending from Heaven in Messianic times is of Midrashic origin[3]:

 According to Midrash Tanchuma[4] G-d informs the Jewish people that:  “[I]n the future I will build it, and I will not destroy it.” Accordingly, the Messianic Temple will not be built by human hands, as were the previous two Temples, but rather by G-d himself.

Another Midrashic source similarly states that: “the first Temple which was built by flesh and blood was destroyed by enemies, whereas the future Temple which will be built by the Holy One....will never be destroyed.”[5]

According to Kanarfogel:

  “As far as I can tell, there are no medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic authorities who suggest the third Temple will be built by human hands, despite the fact that there are a number of midrashic sources which record and support this view.”

Clearly, the Tosafists - by selecting only Midrashic references to G-d building the third Temple - were firm in their resolve to perpetuate the miraculous nature of the Messianic era.

However, there is much debate as to whether we take Midrashim literally or allegorically [See The Challenge of Midrashic Amplification]. 

It is, therefore, surprising to see that the popular conception of Mashiah in modern times, happens to be identical to the views espoused by the Tosafists who certainly were inclined to take Midrashim literally.


The Tosafists also promoted the notion of there being two Messiahs, namely, Mashiach ben Yosef, followed by the ‘main’ Messiah, Mashiach ben David.

Kanarfogel writes:

“These Tosafot texts assume, as a foregone conclusion, that the arrival of...[Mashiach ben Yosef] is part of the redemptive process, despite the minimal reference to this messiah in the Talmud itself.”


Rambam, on the other hand, adopted a completely different view of the Messiah and the Messianic era.[6]

As Kanarfogel puts it:

“[A]ll analyses concur that the non-miraculous, naturalistic character of the messianic age is fundamental to Maimonides’ presentation. During the messianic era, the workings of the world will continue to be guided solely by natural law...”

Rambam bases himself on the opinion expressed in the Talmud by the Amora known as Shmuel of Nehardea (165-257 CE):

“There is no difference between this world and the days of Mashiach other than the [elimination of] oppression by other nations.”  

In other words, according to Shmuel, during the Messianic era there will be no great wonders and miracles. Everything will be exactly the same as it is now, except that Jews will no longer be subjugated by the nations.[7]

Rambam writes:

“The messianic era will (take place) in this [physical] realm, and the world will (continue) to follow its naturalistic character. The only difference will be that Jews will rule over themselves. This was already stated by our early sages...[and the abovementioned quote from Shmuel follows].”[8]

Again Rambam writes:

“Do not think that during the messianic era, the world will no longer function naturally, or that there will be any change in the fundamentals of creation. Rather, the world will run according to its natural order, as our sages have said...[and, again, the abovementioned quote from Shmuel follows].”[9]

The interesting thing is that, in both cases above, Rambam only quotes Shmuel, although there are also other dissenting views expressed in the Talmud[10] which do indicate a more miraculous Messianic era.

Rambam continues:

“Nor should you think that the king messiah has to perform miracles and wonders, or change any order in the world, or [even] revive the dead, etc.”[11]

Rambam adds that the Messiah himself will build the Third Temple – a view which flies in the face of the popular notion that the Temple will be built by G-d and descend from Heaven.

Rambam also maintains that the verse in Isaiah which refers to the wolf lying down with the lamb is not to be taken literally but rather allegorically as alluding to a state of universal peace.

Rambam also makes absolutely no reference to the concept of Mashiach ben Yosef – this again is in stark contrast to the view of the Tosafists.


Two and a half centuries later, Rambam was severely criticised for his rationalist messianic views by R. Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508).

In his Yeshuot Meshicho, Abravanel challenges Rambam for citing Shmuel as his source, because although Shmuel’s view is mentioned six times in the Talmud, on four of those occasions the Talmud rejects or minimises his position.

Furthermore, Abravanel also criticises Rambam for not mentioning Shmuel by name but instead simply refers to the ‘opinion of the Sages’ as if this was the main Talmudic position.


Rambam’s non-mystical Messiah was sharply criticised by Abravanel and it is difficult to pick holes in the technical accuracy of his criticism.

By the same token, although the mystical Messiah of the Tosafists became the hallmark of mainstream Judaism – their source material too, is not without flaws. The Tosafists based themselves on debatable Midrashic sources that even much of the mainstream acknowledge are not solid enough to determine practical outcomes. It is a well-established principle (although one often overlooked) that we do not determine practical Halacha from Midrash.

And the Tosafists were also guilty of choosing particular Midrashic references concerning the Temple falling from Heaven, despite the fact that there are numerous other Midrashic references to the Temple being built by human hands. 

They did the same by emphasizing the role of Mashiach ben Yosef, despite minimal Talmudic references to that character.

Thus, both schools appear to have cherry-picked their support texts very selectively.

Nevertheless, what we ultimately do have are two fundamentally different defining approaches to the essential nature of the Messianic age in general, and of the Messiah in particular.

The mystics and the rationalists, therefore, have mutually exclusive theories as to how we will progress to that anticipated state of the culmination of humankind.

And instead of having more clarity, the question now becomes even more intense: What, indeed, is the Torah perspective of the future era? – Will we humans allow the Messianic era to be brought about through a process of refinement and natural progression or will we be unable to do so without an intervention requiring miracles and wonders?

[1] Medieval Rabbinic Conceptions of the Messianic Ages, by Ephraim Kanarfogel.
[2] Ketav Tamim 40b.
[3] Tosefot (Shavuot 15b) brings a support that the Final Temple will be built out of fire and will fall from Heaven from the verse “Mikdash Hashem Konenu Yadecha” (Shemot 15:17), “G-d’s Temple will be established by Your hand”) although according to the Talmud (Ketuvot 5a) this verse refers to the building of the Second Temple which was built by righteous people who were considered tantamount to ‘G-d’s hand’.
Incidentally, Rashi (in Rosh haShana and Sukkah) appears to take a similar view, based on the same verse “Mikdash Hashem etc.” But Rashi on Ezekiel 43:11 (in some editions) contradicts this by suggesting that the Third Temple will be built by human hands.
[4] Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Noach, section 13. It is difficult to precisely date the Midrash Tanchuma, as cultural references within the text as well as other early medieval writings suggest it may have been edited around the 800s CE, although it does contain sections that are most likely centuries older.
[5] Pesikta Rabati Ch 29. This Midrashic work was composed around the year 845 CE.
[6] This is based, primarily, on his views as recorded in his Mishneh Torah.
[7] Some explain Shmuel to only be referring to the initial process of the redemption.
[8] Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 9:2.
[9] Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, 12 1-2.
[10] See Berachot 34b.
[11] Kanarfogel does point out these views of Rambam follow his formulation in Mishneh Torah. However, in his Iggeret Teiman, he does indicate that some miracles may occur to validate his authenticity.  This may have been his view at the time of his writing the Iggeret, or he may have tried to comfort the Yemenite community in the aftermath of false messianic claims.

Sunday, 12 May 2019


Newly acquired manuscript of Rav Kook

This is about the tenth article focusing on the censored writings of Rav Kook (1865-1935).
[For more background see: The Censored Writings of Rav Kook and here and here.]
This article is based extensively on research by Avinoam Rosenak.[1]


Rav Kook passed away in 1935 yet it was only in 1999 that his Shemonah Kevatzim, or Eight Files, were eventually published. However, even after these writings were withheld for so long, this late publication was still censored and redacted.

Rosenak writes:

“We can only hope that it someday will be possible to examine the [original][2] manuscript itself...”

And regarding the actual publishing of the Shemona Kevatzim:

“ Indeed, that is why the dissemination of these volumes was halted following the printing of the first thousand copies, in an attempt to turn back the clock and return the secrets to their clandestine archives. 
And if that were not sufficient, the texts were again published and again immediately re-secreted; only after the third effort to print them are they now available.”

The Shemonah Kevatzim represent parts of Rav Kook’s writings from between 1904 and 1921. Sadly, the writings between 1921 and Rav Kook’s passing in 1935, remained hidden and those privy to them have been unwilling to allow them to be published.[3]


The sections of Rav Kook’s writings that were published, underwent an ‘editorial’ process by mainly two people: Rav Kook’s student, R. David haCohen known as the Nazir – and his own son, R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook.

Rosenak informs us that:

“Each of them in his own way dulled the spiritual intensity of the original files.”

And it was the son, R. Tzi Yehudah Kook, who particularly:

“...intruded into the construction of individual sentences. He interwove passages from different places, and he crafted extended new paragraphs to the point that the reader of Orot  cannot discern the presence of collage or rewriting.”


Not surprisingly, of the sections censored were Rav Kook’s disparaging remarks concerning the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, as well as his attack against the ultra-Orthodox leader, R. Sonnenfeld.

The Hareidi or ultra-Orthodox Movement was founded in the same year as Rav Kook’s birth, 1865 [see A Short History of Hareidim] and he was raised within it. Yet he severely criticised them for being locked in the past as members of haYishuv haYashan or Old Settlement.

His criticism was biting as he accused the Hareidm of espousing “a morbidly fearful form of piety” as well as its adherents “darkening of the concept of the Deity.

Rosenak continues:

“[H]is diaries convey a deep loathing for components of the religious world in which he was raised...
His journals suggest that he considered himself to have transcended the humdrum concerns preoccupying the Old Settlement...such matters—reflecting the confining world of those around him—had become repulsive to him. 

R. Kook portrays his ultra-orthodox counterparts as spiritually base persons characterized by a merely external reverence, filled with malignant fear and melancholy that endanger the soul of the pious lover of God...

By contrast, the pious or righteous person inclines within the depths of his heart toward transcending the boundaries of the social and religious order. His spirit is ‘beyond all fixed logic...or any practical established halakhah, and his heart aspires to ascend on high.’ Life within the framework of fixed boundaries constricts his soul.”

The ultra-Orthodox Movement cursed and threatened Rav Kook to such an extent that his life was endangered, and the Brittish Police - charged with keeping the peace in Jerusalem during the Mandatory period – were forced to intervene to preserve his life.

Rosenak quotes R. Shalom Natan Ra’anan, whose family had published the Shemona Kevatzim:

“... Rabbi [Kook][4] was very grieved that members of Agudat Israel do not understand him. When he saw their unruly behavior he sometimes called them ‘wicked.’

With regard to Rabbi Sonnenfeld [a leader of the ultra-Orthodox faction and the chief judge of Jerusalem][5] he would say: ‘Even when he says something good, he says it out of wickedness, for evil, too, has good as its source.’ 

Nor was he satisfied with the members of the Mizrahi [religious Zionism][6], because he didn’t think they ever took a [firm?] stand.”

In 1914, Rav Kook and R. Sonnenfeld went on a tour of the Zionist settlements in the Galilee. R. Sonnenfeld used the tour as an opportunity to try and get the secular Zionists to repent of their ways – while Rav Kook took it as an opportunity for the religious world to repent of the way they viewed and treated the secular Jews.

After the tour, Rav Kook said that the workers were the ones who really “repair the world.”

He wrote:
“Every act that rescues some portion of existence from the dominion of chaos is something great.”[7]


Rav Kook was often criticised for being lax in his attitude towards Torah study. [See What if I Don’t like Studying Gemara?] This was because of statements like this:

“Sometimes there is a kind of diligence [in study] that destroys all the spiritual capital of the diligent one and [then there is also][8] a kind of idleness that fills a person’s entire world with holiness and valor, the secret of silence.”[9]

Here is a similar text expressing the same sentiment:

“Sometimes a person is overcome by inspired ideals, which transcend all fixed logic, and certainly any practical established halakha, and his heart yearns to take flight.
On no account is he capable of confining his soul to prescribed studies. He must therefore set loose his spirit to wander in accordance with its inclination. Let him seek the Lord wherever his soul, hovering above the many waters, leads him…It is impossible for such a spirit to order and limit itself. It is impossible to burden it with a measured meticulousness...”[10]

Again Rav Kook writes:

“Here I am, imprisoned in tight straits, within various limitations; but my spirit yearns for exalted expanses...
 Anything that is limited is profane in comparison to the supernal holiness I seek... 
How difficult it is for me to study; how difficult to accommodate to details.”[11]

Rav Kook writes in his diary:

 “[M]y neglect of Torah study does not result from laziness but from inner longings for the divine goodness of the Torah’s secrets.”[12]


As mentioned, the Nazir was one of the editors of his teacher’s writings. He was particularly concerned with editing out any references to Rav Kook’s views on prophecy. Here is one example of his editing process:

In Rav Kook’s original writing, this is how one sentence was structured:

“Prophecy and the holy spirit come from a person’s inwardness, and from within him he overflows to...the world as a whole.”

In the Nazir’s redacted version, the same sentence takes on a different meaning:

“Prophecy and the holy spirit come (by the word of God to) a person’s inwardness, and from within him (they) overflow to...the world as a whole.”

However, Rav Kook never made any reference to the ‘word of G-d’ coming to a person. Instead, he said that prophecy springs from within the individual’s “inwardness” which innately exudes spirituality from itself.


Another example of how the Nazir changed the meaning of some of Rav Kook’s writings can be seen in the following extract:

Rav Kook himself originally wrote:

“One suffers great torment in going from the broad expanses...into halachic confines, black as a raven...This soulful person, splendid in holiness, feels his awful torment, the chains that bind him, when he goes forth from Talmud to Talmud.”[13]

But the Nazir reconstructed the second section to read:

“...a soulful person, splendid in holiness, feels his awful torment, (all) the chains that bind him, when he goes from Talmud to Talmud.”[14]

Rav Kook wrote that the soulful person feels torment when he ‘downgrades’ to the confines of Halacha and similarly feels the chains that bind him when he goes from one section of Talmud to the other – but the Nazir changed the words to mean that a soulful person feels his own torment and the chains that bind him when he goes from one section of the Talmud to the other because the Talmud’s inherent holiness highlights his forlorn state (and is not the cause of it, as Rav Kook actually meant).


Another section that was censored but recently found its way to publication was a possible reference to Rav Kook himself. His attack against Hareidim and Mizrachi left little option other than what some consider to be a reference to himself as one of those who are “worthy of being mighty kings,”  and  sense the grandeur of their spirit within, who brim with courage and humility...” and these persons, he says, are already present in the congregation of Israel. 

Rosenak writes that Rav Kook seemed to believe that he was “assigned to reconcile all of the cultural differences and conflicts of the generation.” 

Another similarly censored section shown Rav Kook’s consternation and alarm concerning his own spiritual experiences. Rav Kook questioned himself, and perhaps even his own sanity, when he wrote:

“...I was intensely fearful...
Have I stooped so low as to become a false prophet, saying that the Holy One sent me, though the word of my Master was not revealed to me? I heard the sound of my soul roaring...
Prophetic sprouts are springing up, and the sons of prophets are awakening...”[15]

Other censored sections similarly highlight some of his emotions which Rosenak describes as “difficulties growing out of his lack of public recognition.”

Rav Kook held nothing back and perhaps his honesty was sometimes his own worst enemy. In one place he refers to his perception of seeing lightning flashes before his eyes.

Reading these formerly censored sections now, seems to cast a shadow over the glorified image many have of the man. It is, therefore, perhaps understandable that these redactions took place in order to protect his image. But, it can be argued, that it still does not justify the practice of withholding any teachings offered by any teacher.


Fascinatingly, controversially, and counter-intuitively, Rosenak shows how Rav Kook believed that the holy leaders of the Jewish people had to:

“...observe the commandments in great distress[16], not for the sake of their inherent vitality but for the sake of the world and of society and for educational purposes...

[H]e describes how he suffers on account of his communal responsibility to a society preoccupied with halakhic details and legalistic arguments that afflict his spirit. Submission to social norms, he argues, produces ‘immeasurable pain to the soul’[17] and ultimately harms the entire community, for it keeps the zaddiq from fulfilling himself, thereby limiting his unique contribution to society. 

Rabbi Kook acknowledged that ‘it is very difficult to tolerate society, the encounter with people whose entire beings are immersed in a different world.’[18]


Reading these extracts of Rav Kook’s radical writings shows just what an antinomian and disruptive thinker he was.

Rav Kook has been variously interpreted and defined in so many different ways. Some have portrayed him as a Kabbalist or mystic, others as a philosopher, and many as a religious Zionist (although less than ten percent of his writings concerned Zionism). Some even portrayed him as a Chassidic Rebbe [see Did Rav Kook Want to Start a New Chassidic Movement?].

As more and more of Rav Kook’s censored writings come out into the open, we begin to see the great depth and complexity of the man. Every time someone leaks a section of his formally classified writings, we realize just how difficult it is to define him. And we catch another glimpse of a Torah personality who either resonates more with our previous perception of him, or possibly even less.

This is what makes his authentic and original writings so disturbing and repulsive to some - yet so intensely compelling to others.

[1] Hidden Diaries and New Discoveries: The Life and Thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook, by Avinoam Rosenak.
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] As of 2007, when Rosenak’s article was published.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] SK File 1, 219, section 887.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] File 8, section 24.
[10] SK 59, section 151.
[11] SF File 3, 86, section 222.
[12] SK 56, 5-6, section 6.
[13] SK File 3, 94, section 250.
[14] Orot haKodesh 1, 28.
[15] Orot haKodesh 1, 157.
[16] SK 137, section 410.
[17] SK File 1, 212, section 665.
[18] SK File 3, 112, section 315.