Sunday 10 May 2020


Likkutim with references to Sefer haIyun and Shem Tov Ibn Gaon (see Appendix): 



The Zohar was first published (in manuscript form) in around 1280. During that century and the next, there was much debate over who wrote it, who owned it and - more importantly - who owned the Kabbalistic tradition in general. 

The publication of the Zohar brought the issue of ownership of Kabbalah to a head because this was the beginning of a new literary (written) mystical tradition replacing a hitherto largely oral mystical tradition[1].

In this article, we will explore the question of who owned the authentic rights to Kabbalah. Was it those who wrote, read and studied its books - or those who transmitted and expounded it the form of an oral tradition?

I have drawn extensively from Professor Moshe Halbertal[2], a graduate of Har Etzion Yeshiva who later served, amongst other positions, as visiting professor at Yale and Harvard Universities. He is also the co-author of the Israeli Army Code of Ethics.

Considering the prime role the Zohar and Kabbalah were to play in future Judaism, it is interesting to see how ideas we usually take for granted as always being part of Jewish tradition, were fiercely debated at that time. 

What is refreshing about this account is that it is not historical speculation but, instead, a record of ‘eye witness’ writings of two contemporaneous Kabbalists from each of the two competing mystical schools at the time of the publication of the Zohar in the late 13th- century. It is the story of the battle between the established older oral mystical tradition and the infancy and stirrings of a new competing written tradition.


Moshe Halbertal presents the problem:

“The emergence of literary canon endows a tradition with authority and endurance, which is independent from the localized and bounded channels of oral transmission. Yet such transformation might undermine that same tradition it aimed at solidifying.”


This tension resulted in a clash between the newer literary and older oral mystical traditions. The clash may be personified as a conflict between two exponents of these traditions, namely Meir Ibn Sahula (1255-1335) representing what was to become the new literary tradition, and Shem Tov Ibn Gaon (1283-1330) representing the older oral tradition.




Towards the latter part of the 13th-century, the Spanish Kabbalist Meir Ibn Sahula wrote about how he had acquired all his mystical knowledge from books and not from an oral tradition. This was something rather unusual at that time.

Meir Ibn Sahula had written a commentary to an earlier Kabbalistic work, Sefer Yetzirah, and in it he writes:

"For several years already, I have been studying these things relating to all secrets, starting with the Sefer Habahir, which explains some matters, and the writings of Rabbi Asher who wrote the Perush Shlosh Esreh Middot and the Perush Hashevu'ah, and Rabbi Ezra , Rabbi Azariel and Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman [Nachmanides or Ramban][3], all of blessed memory . Also, I studied those chapters. And I acquired some of the commentary on Sefer Yetzirah attributed to Rabbi Moshe bar Nahman of blessed memory, but I was unable to acquire all of it."[4]

Evidently, Meir Ibn Sahula had access to a large body of written mystical literature and he was happy to consult it and learn from it. However, he was the exception rather than the rule, as most Kabbalists held to the very strict tradition of an oral mystical transmission. Mystical books (baring one or two exceptions) and certainly libraries were considered unauthentic and unauthorized for such an important tradition.


A strong advocate of the oral transmission of mystical knowledge as the only way to study and understand these ideas was Nachmanides (1194-1270). Nachmanides is generally known as the father of Jewish mysticism and he promoted its transmission in a mostly oral form.

Nachmanides maintained that the mystical tradition was a closed system which had its origins at Sinai and the only way to safeguard its authenticity was, essentially, through oral transmission.[5]

Nachmanides’ commonly adopted position can be seen in the Introduction to his Commentary on the Torah:

"[C]oncerning any of the mystic hints which I write regarding the hidden matters of the Torah...I do hereby firmly make known to him [the reader] that my words will not be comprehended nor known at all by any reasoning or contemplation, excepting from the mouth of a wise Kabbalist speaking into the ear of an understanding recipient.

Reasoning about them is foolishness; any unrelated thought brings much damage and withholds the benefit... let them take moral instruction from the mouths of our holy Rabbis...[A]bout that which is hidden from you, do not ask."[6]

There was to be no innovation or space for any private access to this knowledge. It could not be acquired independently. It had to be given over only by the master who possessed and owned that knowledge.


Accordingly, Meir Ibn Sahula can be considered a mystic rebel in that he went against the dictates of mainstream Kabbalists and promoted independent textual study of mystical literature.

Meir Ibn Sahula writes in stark contradistinction to Nachmanides:

"We must investigate the words according to our understanding, and walk in them in the paths walked by the prophets in their generation and in the generations before us, during the two hundred years of kabbalists to date, and they call the wisdom of the ten sefirot and some of the reasons for the commandments[,] Kabbalah."[7]

In another statement, Meir Ibn Sahula is even clearer:

"I did not receive this from tradition, but I say 'open my eyes that I may gaze on the wonders of your Law'."[8]

Halbertal describes Meir Ibn Sahula as undermining the authority of the earlier Kabbalists:

“The restriction of the scope of the tradition empowers the investigative position and his reliance on reasoning.”


This “restriction of scope” is fundamentally important because it now allows and admits the notion of innovation of mystical ideas – something abhorrent to the mainstream Kabbalists like Nachmanides who roots his mystical tradition in Sinai.

What is striking about the position taken by Meir Ibn Sahula is that he sees much of Kabbalah as having developed later, especially during the two hundred year period before him. This would be particularly significant because new mystical ideas such as the Ten Sefirot[9] as defined by the more recent written works, were to become a cornerstone and basic building block of much of future Jewish mysticism.


Besides the publication of the Zohar, there were numerous other mystical writings - some more accurate than others - that were also in circulation. The Spanish Kabbalists were particularly esoteric but one group from Castille was even more extreme. They were known as the Chug haIyun or Circle of In-Depth Contemplation. It is likely that Meir Ibn Sahula was part of this group.

They produced a vast mystical literature which was largely pseudepigraphical (i.e., written falsely in the name of other, earlier and better known authorities)[10].

Halbertal refers to their pseudepigraphical enterprises as “creative and daring.” They did not base their teachings on any oral tradition. Instead, took their authority from (according to Halbertal a mythical figure[11]) R. Chamai Gaon. They were intent on breaking the closed, secret and exclusive circle of traditional Kabbalists like Nachmanides. 

The writings of the Chug haIyun - together with other mystical writings which accumulated from various sectors of the Spanish mystical community - eventually culminated in the writing of the Zohar, which further broke the notion that Kabbalah was a closed system.




At the other end of the spectrum - in light of the plethora of newly published mystical literature - another mystic, Shem Tov Ibn Gaon emerges as a defender of the more traditional system of oral transmission as propounded by Nachmanides. He attempts to reinstate the closed model of Kabbalah as an oral tradition only for the duly initiated.

Shem Tov Ibn Gaon was a student of Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderet - also known as the Rabbi of Spain - El Rab d'España) who in turn was a student of Nachmanides.

Shem Tov Ibn Gaon writes about how, in his view, the oral mystical tradition goes back to Sinai:

“For no sage can know of them through his own sagacity, and no wise man may understand through his own wisdom, and no researcher through his research, and no expositor through his exposition; only the kabbalist may know, based on the Kabbalah that he received, passed down orally from one man to another, going back to the chain of the greats of the renowned generation, who received it from their masters, and the fathers of their fathers, going back to Moses...who received it as Law from Sinai.”[12]

Shem Tov Ibn Gaon then takes a swipe at the style of popular mystical writings that were beginning to emerge and he challenges their authenticity:

"[E]very man whom the spirit of God is within must take heed...lest he find books written with this wisdom...for perhaps the whole of what he received is but chapter headings; then he may come to study such books and fall in the deep pit as a result of the sweet words he finds there; for he may rejoice in them, or desire their secrets or the sweetness of the lofty language he finds there.
But perhaps their author has not received the Kabbalah properly, passed down orally from one to another; he may only have been intelligent or skilled in poetry or rhetoric... and have left the true path, as our Sages of blessed memory warned, 'in the measure of his sharpness, so is his error’.”[13]

Probably because of the timing of Shem Tov Ibn Gaon’s  writing so soon after the publication of the Zohar, Halbertal interprets his word as follows:

“It may very well be that Shem Τον Ibn Gaon was warning his readers against the Zohar, which is the epitome of the development of the Kabbalah as literature, as its marvelous literary qualities are powerfully seductive...

[The older and more traditional oral mystical systems][14] have no narrative frames or mythic characters, nor do they display complex weaves of midrashim and explanations, whereas in the Zohar we find these elements in abundance. The seductive appeal of the literary kabbalistic works threaten its status as a precise tradition handed down by Moses on Mount Sinai; it is this threat that Shem Tov struggled with.”

Halbertal points out that Nachmanides’ writings, in stark contradistinction to the style of the Zohar, are ‘devoid of any literary quality’. Nachmanides was not writing to entertain. Bear in mind that Nachmanides would have passed away (in 1270) about ten years before the Zohar was published (in 1280).

But Shem Tov Ibn Gaon hasn’t finished yet. Besides criticising the abundance of new mystical literature, he launches into what appears to be an attack against the Zohar seeming to accuse it of pseudepigrapha. This is one of the first contemporaneous criticisms of the Zohar which was to become the mainstay of Jewish mysticism:

"God forbid, for the earlier instructed ones and the bearers of tradition have already proclaimed against this, saying that the wise man should not read any book unless he knows the name of its author.”

This statement needs to viewed against the backdrop of the fact that although the Zohar was only published in 1280, it was claimed to have been written by R. Shimon Bar Yochai, a Tanna from the Mishnaic Period one thousand years earlier. It was claimed that some of Bar Yochai’s original manuscripts had recently been found and only published in 1280 for the first time. Others counterclaimed that the Zohar was a pseudepigraphic forgery written by Moshe de León (1240-1305).
Shem Tov Ibn Gaon continues:

“And this is just, for when he knows whom its author is, he will understand its path and intention, (transmitted) from one man to another until the members of his generation. Thus, he may know if its author was a legitimate authority, and from whom he received it and whether his wisdom is renowned."[15]

Later, Shem Tov Ibn Gaon continues to highlight the differences between his Nachmanidean school and the new and emerging literary Kabbalistic tradition:

"[The traditional mystical schools] were careful not to compose unattributed literature, writing only in their own names. Furthermore, they never explained anything based on their own knowledge, unless they made public to all readers how they arrived at such knowledge through their own reasoning. They publicized their names in their works so that all who come after them may know what guarded measure and in which paths light may be found."[16]

This was not the case with the new emerging written mystical schools which thrived on grand pseudepigraphical enterprises.


Shem Tov Ibn Gaon was now faced with a dilemma: He opposed the emergence of the Zohar and other new writings because they were not part of the oral mystical tradition, but there were some older literary works that predated his era and he felt that they were authentic. These works included the Sefer haBahir, Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Shiur Komah.

His solution was simple. He included those written works within the corpus of the oral mystical tradition. But in order to qualify as an oral tradition, the three written works must be chanted “in a tune” and memorized.[17] This apparently transformed the written word into an oral tradition.

He had another dilemma: Even some of the mystical ideas of Nachmanides had been written down and some appear in Nachmanides’ various own commentaries.[18] Shem Tov Ibn Gaon explained that Nachmanides’ mystical writings were generally written in a hinted manner and were not explicit:

“[I]n each and every place [he] hinted at hidden things...based on what he had received. Nevertheless, he made his words very enigmatic...”[19]

Thus even the mystical writings of Nachmanides were to be considered essentially as part of an oral and not a written corpus.



Halbertal explains that indeed Nachmanides and others did write very sparsely in a hinted and enigmatic style.  It seems that they did not do this just to qualify their writings as technically within the oral tradition but for another reason as well. That reason was to maintain control over the ideas.
Halbertal writes:

“[The] oral transmission is not the organized, systematic transmission of Torah secrets... it was also done through hints, and a little at a time. The student received the chapter headings and his masters examined how he developed and understood them on his own; only when he was found worthy did they expand the range of hints and transmit additional chapter headings, and so on. This method of transmission provides the masters with long-term control over the learning process, and enables the process to be halted at various points.”


Halbertal elaborates on the difficult conditions imposed on one who wanted to become a part of the oral mystical transmission:

“The transmission through hinting, which is gradually amplified in accordance with the student's own progress, reflects the circular nature of the condition...

The circular conditions of entry are the profoundest expression of the elitism of the esoteric. One may not join the esoteric circle, as it is based on a tautology—whoever knows the secret is worthy of receiving it. Esotericism thus entails a strong sense of privacy: 'only those who already understand me can understand me'.”


The would-be initiate into the world of the oral tradition of mysticism had to agree to keep his knowledge secret. Shem Tov Ibn Gaon describes this commitment as follows:

"When they transmitted (this knowledge) to me, they did so on condition that I would not transmit it to others except under three conditions, to any one who comes to receive the matters of the initiates: the first is that he be a Talmudic scholar, the second that he be forty years old or more, and the third that he be pious and humble in spirit."


Halbertal is quick to point out the human reality that is always present and the tendency for a power-struggle even (or particularly) within the mystical world:

“An additional restriction mentioned by Shem Tov — ‘that he be a Talmudic scholar’— was designed to create a situation in which the realm of closed knowledge would remain the sole property of the Torah scholars.

This restriction had institutional and social significance that far surpassed the question of the student's aptitude for receiving Torah secrets. Esoteric teachings might pose a threat to authority structures and halakhic frameworks, because they present themselves as the inner meaning of religion.

The attempt to restrict the Kabbalah to traditions transmitted amongst Torah scholars is a means of preventing its becoming a body of knowledge and authority that could compete with the halakhic world...

The rabbinical elite attempts to keep the esoteric tradition within its own domain, so that it will not become a competing institution of authority and inspiration.”

This may be another reason why the mystics of the oral tradition were not happy with the emergence of the new literary body of written Kabbalistic literature.


History has shown that the future dominant school of Kabbalah was to emerge not from the mystics of the oral tradition but from the mystics of the new written school which included the Zohar.
In this sense, Halbertal concludes:

“Shem Τον Ibn Gaon presents us with a polemical picture, full and rare, of an esoteric tradition that has lost its power.”

Back to our original question: who owned the early Kabbalah - those who wrote it or those who orally taught it?

It seems that initially, it was the elitist mystics of the school of oral mystical tradition who owned the Kabbalah. But after the Zohar was published in 1280, the mystical tradition was democratized and opened up for anyone who knew how to read it. 

The new mystical writers now owned Kabbalah and the older oral school might have felt that the chain they believed went back to Sinai had been broken. They may also have lamented their loss of control over the mystical literature which now could easily fall into the hands of Kabbalists who could create an opposing stream to the Halachists.


[For more on the Kabbalistic notion of control over the teachings, see: Why Were the Teachings of Chasidei Ashkenaz so Elusive?]

[For more on the Shiur Komah, see: The Notion the G-d has a Body.]

[For more on who wrote the Zohar, see Mysteries behind the Origins of the Zohar.]


Notes on the picture.

Translation of the title page of Likutim by Rav Hai Gaon (Warsaw 1798 – First Edition Printed by the Magid of Koznitz) which included other works:

[Interesting and relevant names and ideas have been highlighted for further consideration:]

Likutim by Rabbi Hai Gaon, Kabbalistic matters and prayers, "Explanations on the 42 Letter Name, deep secrets, new and very wonderful things", with additional Kabbalistic compilations: Sha'ar HaShamayim by Rabbi Yosef Giktilia, Likutei Shem Tov, Ma'amar Ploni Almoni, on the 10 Sefirot and Names. Tefillat R' Ya'akov Yasgova [of Strzegowo], Sefer Ha'Iyun L'Rav Chamai Gaon, "Secrets by the Kabbalist Chacham Yosef Giktilia" on the mitzvoth, and "Booklet by Rabbi S.T. from the Rashba" explanations of Torah secrets by the Ramban. [Warsaw, 1798]. First edition.

Printed by the Magid Rabbi Yisrael of Koznitz
(1737–1814), from manuscripts hidden in his possession, edited by his disciple and personal scribe Rabbi Gavriel of Warsaw. With the approbation of the Magid of Koznitz printed on the verso of the title page. He writes that the manuscript and its printing were performed by his instructions and that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv also agreed to print the book, "And with the permission of… Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Av Beit Din of Berdychiv".

[1] At the time of the publication of the Zohar there were some other written mystical works, such as the Sefer haBahir, Sefer Yetzirah and Shiur Komah. However, around the 13th-century, mystical writing began to proliferate.
[2]Moshe Halbertal, From Oral Tradition to Literary Canon: Shem Tov Ibn Gaon and the Critique of Kabbalistic Literature.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] MS Rome Angelica 1/145, p. 2b.
[5] Moshe Idel, "Nahmanides: Kabbalah, Halakha and Spiritual Leadership."
[6] Perush Haramban, I, pp . 7-8; Chavel, I, pp . 15-16.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 100b
[9] The notion that G-d’s emanation can be broken down into ten essential energies or attributes so as to achieve various spiritual and physical outcomes.
[10] It is interesting and telling that the definition of ‘pseudoepigrapha’ is “spurious or pseudonymous writings, especially Jewish writings.”
[11] Later, Halbertal refers to “the enigmatic image of Rabbi Hamai.” (Italics mine)

According to Jellinek Rabbi Chamai was from the school of R. Isaac the Blind. (See: Jellinek, Auswahl Kabbalistischer Mystik, pp. 8 et seq.) 

However. according to Shadal’s Vikuach: “I say that Rav Chamai did not exist and was never created, and no Sage whose name was such is found amongst the Geonim nor amongst the Rabbanan Savorai, and not even amongst the Sages of the Talmud. And I say that Rav Paltoi Gaon died 100 years before Rav Hai Gaon was born. And therefore I say that one should not rely much upon the testimony of the sages of kabbalah, for they are established liars.
[12] Badei haAron, p. 27.
[13] Badei haAron, pp. 25-26.
[14] Parenthesis mine.
[15] Badei haAron, ibid.
[16] Badei haAron, p. 29.
[17] Badei haAron, p. 32.
[18] Such as Nachmanides’ commentary on the Book of Job and his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah.
[19] Badei haAron, p. 29.


  1. If you see the fruit but not the tree - beware of the fruit!

    Thank you! Is the oral tradition still alive today?

    This reminds me of talmud chagiga and the restrictions on the manner of teaching maase bereishit & maase merkava

  2. Some people will tell you it is alive, but; 'if you see the fruit...'