Saturday 7 November 2020


1906 edition of Eits haDa'at Tov by R. Chaim Vital.

One often tends to view kabbalistic thought as if it were a homogenous ancient tradition passed down faithfully from generation to generation without any additions or innovations. This article, based extensively on the research and thought[1] of Professor Shaul Magid, we explore how R. Chaim Vital Calebrese of Safed (1543-1620) - considered to be the main student of the Ari[2] - may have used his experience of contemporary realities to innovate aspects of his mystical ideology.

These ideas are found in R. Chaim Vital’s less examined work, Eits haDa’at Tov, which remained in manuscript form until 1871. Key to the work is his novel interpretation of the biblical community which accompanied the Israelites in the desert, known as the Eirev Rav, or mixed multitude (Ex. 12:38). Later rabbinic literature - and more relevant to our study, zoharic literature -  ascribed much blame to the Eirev Rav who were described as a negative influence on the Jewish people. R. Chaim Vital’s novel approach to this traditional negative view of the Eirev Rav is of particular interest.[3]


Following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal after 1492, marranos and conversos (Jews who had converted to Catholicism and were looking to return to their faith) had moved westwards into Europe and many had gone to Eretz Yisrael and particularly to Safed. The population of Safed had swelled and within one particular year, the village turned into a town which now had the largest Jewish community in Ottoman Syria, with over 1000 families. Many conversos were hoping to become reabsorbed within the Jewish community, claiming that their previous conversion to Christianity had been under duress - but the Jews were not sure how to deal with them.[4]

Although many rabbis did not trust the sincerity of these conversos, R. Chaim Vital championed their cause and even developed a kabbalistic theology to help their reinstation as Jews. In fact, he went even further by showing how integral the conversos were to the scheme of messianic redemption.

This notion of messianic redemption was very much the theological vogue of the mystics of Safed, particularly under the R. Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572) known as the Ari (or Arizal).[5] The atmosphere of Safed was rich with messianic tension and both the Ari and his student R. Chaim Vital had expressed their claims to the role of Messiah. The appearance of a multitude of conversos in Safed played into the hands of this messianic drama because they were equated to the Eirev Rav of biblical times, who also didn’t know if they were non-Jews or Jews or somewhere in between.

R. Chaim Vital records that the Ari confirmed that the conversos were indeed the spiritual equivalent of the Eirev Rav and it was his (R. Chaim Vital’s) duty to facilitate their absorption back into Judaism and Torah.[6]


R. Chaim Vital’s comparison of conversos to the Eirev Rav, produced what Magid refers to as a “counter-narrative” to the hitherto negative manner in which traditional rabbinic literature - and significantly the Zohar - portrayed the biblical mixed multitude. The Eirev Rav were often blamed and made a scapegoat for the sins of the Israelites. The Zohar goes so fas as to say that the Eirev Rav were evil, dangerous, and even demonic.

However, the new Lurianic narrative found redemptive features and qualities within the Eirev Rav and, by extension, within the conversos. The ancient Eirev Rav had finally been mystically vindicated and that was to become the model through which to deal with the matter of contemporary conversos.

The radical significance of this vindication should not be lost, particularly because it stood out against the foundational mystical work, the Zohar.


Why was there suddenly such an unusual about-face in an ancient mystical interpretation of the Eirev Rav? Considering the relatively large numbers of conversos who had descended upon the mystical town of Safed, it not impossible that there was not some form of political consideration at play.

Magid points out that although a mystic, R. Chaim Vital was also concerned about and involved in communal affairs and “held strong opinions on important matters”. The Eirev Ravmay have been a vehicle for fashioning new identities, perhaps proto-messianic identities”. Historical documents show how Rabbinic courts in Safed were continuously dealing with such matters of Jewish identity at that time.[7]

Magid shows how:

“Vital was indeed invested in the realia of his world, especially on the issue of the conversos, and used his exegetical skills to convey his position on this matter under the guise of his metaphysical or, in this case, kabbalistic-exegetical writings.”

The Eirev Rav and the conversos, although separated by thousands of years, had dimensions that were similar to each other. The Eirev Rav been present at the revelation at Sinai and the conversos had once been Jews, but both were not entirely regarded as a fully-fledged Jewish community.


The ‘re-judaization’ of the conversos and accepting then back within the Jewish fold was to be one of the final steps in the process of bringing about the messianic age that was expected to have been immanent. A tikkun or rectification of the how the Eirev Rav was viewed and treated in the past was to be effected through a new approach by absorbing the conversos back into Judaism.

Now, as a pre-requisite to the final redemption, the Safed mystics were going to rectify the failed biblical mission of the Eirev Rav and finally bring them home through the guise of the conversos.


The Eirev Rav and its converso counterparts (or reincarnations) were explained to have existed in a spiritual twilight zone. R. Chaim Vital said that at Sinai they experienced (or ‘saw’) the G-d’s voice, or kol but did not hear or understand the words, or dibbur.[8] Magid describes their position as having “a claim to and a stake in the covenant while not being fully a part of it”.


Because the Eirev Rav did not have the same status as the Jewish people they felt like, what Magid terms, “excluded insiders”. R. Chaim Vital evokes compassion for their spiritual plight as they want to be part of the people but G-d turns them away at every opportunity and seems only concerned about His people. It was only on the insistence of Moshe that the Eirev Rav remained.

According to R. Chaim Vital’s Eits haDa’at Tov:

[The Eirev Rav][9] said to Moses, ‘‘We do not, God forbid, disbelieve!’’ This is because it [revelation] had already become certain for them (nit’amet lahem). They said, ‘‘We acknowledge the truth of God and his Torah, and we also know that we are not fit like Israel to receive it. Yet we are also not, God forbid, equal to the other nations because we have converted….For this reason we should have a higher status from all the other nations. That is, we received the Torah through you [Moses]. [10]

On this view, an interesting shift took place after the Sinai experience. The Jews became less dependent on Moshe while the Eirev Rav became more dependent on him.

Know that God took Israel out of Egypt. This is not the case with the ‘erev rav, who were taken out by Moses, as it says, who you took out of the Land of Egypt (Ex 32.7). It does not say ‘‘I [God] took them [the ‘erev rav] out.’’ Therefore the ‘erev rav are called ‘‘Moses’ people’’ . . . They are no worse than the other nations, in fact, they are better since they came [out] in order to convert…[11]


According to R. Chaim Vital, while not condoning it, the incident with the Golden Calf becomes somewhat justifiable. In order to understand this, one must be aware of the complicated and intimate relationship that developed between Moshe Rabbeinu and the Eirev Rav. He even calls the Eirev Rav the ‘Am shel Moshe’, or Moshe’s people.[12] The Torah also says that G-d told Moshe to go down the mountain because his (Moshe’s) people had sinned.[13]

Many commentaries understand that the Golden Calf affair occurred because the Jewish people were afraid that Moshe had perhaps died on Sinai, or even abandoned his people. After all, he delayed to come down. However, the Zohar understands that it was the Eirev Rav and not the Israelites who were most concerned about Moshe. This difference comes about depending on how one reads the following verse from Shemot (32:1):

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ׃

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”

Most commentaries take “the people” to refer to the Israelites. The Zohar takes it to refer to the Eirev Rav, and as mentioned, viewed them as a demonic entity because they built the calf.

R. Chaim Vital bases himself on this zoharic interpretation but rejects that they were irretrievably evil. They just need the intermediary effect of their leader, Moshe – while the Israelites would have been able to carry on even had Moshe died on the mountain.

According to Eits haDa’at Tov:

They [the Isrealites] already heard the voice of God in the Ten Commandments and they already entered into a covenant and oath with God. This covenant would not have collapsed with Moses’ death…

[The Eirev Rav knew that] God wanted to reject them. It was only Moses who accepted them against God’s wishes . . .

[The Eirev Rav][14] immediately approached Aaron and said Come make us a god [elohim] who shall go before us . . . (Ex 32.1) because Aaron was a partner with Moses in taking them out.[15]

The Eirev Rav need a Moshe more than the Israelites. Their spiritual existence depended upon the intermediary support and intervention of a Moshe, an Aharon or…a Golden Calf to defend them (perhaps even from G-d) until Moshe returned.

Eits haDa’at Tov continues recording the view of the Eirev Rav:

This is not for the purpose of idolatry; God Forbid, we only desire the living God. The calf is a likeness [of the divine] like the Tabernacle, and the cherubim with human faces, where I [God] will dwell . . . Therefore, the reason [for the calf] is that when Moses was here (kayam) he protected us like a merciful father. He was, for us, like an elohim.[16]

R. Chaim Vital supports the Eirev Rav further by arguing that they only experienced the voice of God but not his words, and therefore did not hear the commandment against making images. For this reason, the Golden Calf was not their transgression! This is why Aharon agreed to assist them.

Ultimately, R. Chaim Vital agrees that they sinned, but only when they tried to equate their status with that of Israel. In other words, their sin was not the calf but that they tried to draw Israel into the worship of G-d through the agency of intermediaries. They could use intermediaries, but not Israel. Had they simply worshipped the calf, even as an Elohim or intermediary, while making a distinction between the intermediary and G-d, it would have not been a tragic event.

Once Israel worships Elohim through any elohim, they refute their unique status and relationship to God as YHVH and, by extension, diminish their experience at Sinai to the experience of the ‘erev rav.[17]


The Eirev Rav draw Israel into the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf (according to the Midrash). R. Chaim Vital develops a theology as to why they did so. Since the Eirev Rav were desperately trying to become part of the people, they had to show that the Israelites were no better than them.


The style of mystical literature in general and the Zohar, in particular, may be termed replacement theology. This means that Moshe in the story of the Eirev Rav may be replaced by the Moshe of the generation. Accordingly, R. Chaim Vital, with his messianic ambitions would be the new Moshe who champions the new Eirev Rav, or conversos.

Thus the essence of the Eirev Rav remained hidden and dormant until the time just before redemption. Then, as a tikkun and prerequisite to the revelation of the Messiah, they must finally be absorbed back into the Jewish fold.

The Zohar, in principle, even hints at such notion:

[T]he problem of the ‘erev rav will be resolved when Moses returns.’[18]

Magid emphasises this point very poignantly:

Paradoxically, it is the excluded insiders (the ‘erev rav / the conversos) who carry the weight of redemption. By shedding their status of exclusion and by Israel acknowledging their covenantal importance, the final stage of exile comes to a close.


This was the time when Safed was the centre of a messianic fervour (that later went on to contribute to the fever of messianism of Shabbatai Tzvi[19] who was born just six years after R. Chaim Vital’s passing).

R. Chaim Vital took this replacement theology very seriously. The connection between Moshe and the Eirev Rav existed in the physical world because in the spiritual world the two were part of the same fallen soul of Adam. Thus Moshe and the Eirev Rav were inextricably attached to each other. Moshe showed compassion to the Eirev Rav because they were a part of his own spiritual makeup. Additionally, he too was raised in Egypt and he understood them as they were also largely Egyptians. He was, on this view, simply returning a lost component of his own soul to Judaism. And the corollary is also true because the Eirev Rav needed Moshe just as much, as he was their only gateway to G-d and tikkun. If the Eirev Rav were a part of Moshe, they were also a part of G-d and His people. Moshe was bent on helping the Eirev Rav convert fully because they were a lost part of his soul.

R. Chaim Vital develops this notion more by saying that the Eirev Rav were the negative part of Moshe’s soul (because after Adam sinned, all the souls that came from his root contained a mixture of good and evil).

Moshe had to return and fix his Eirev Rav for his mission to be completed. Magid describes this as “the struggle for Moses to reunite the lost remnants of his soul in order to fulfill his role as the archetypal Jewish leader—that is, the Messiah.”

This is why Moshe felt more responsibility for the Eirev Rav than for the Israelites.[20]

[Later, the Sabbatian ideologue, R. Abraham Miguel Cardozo (1627–1706), who was also a converso and student of Nathan of Gaza, writes, ‘‘In the future Messiah the King will don the garments of a Marrano, and on account of that the Jews will not recognize him.’’][21]

This idea of ‘fixing’ the negative is also found in another of R. Chaim Vital’s writing, Sha’ar haGilgulim, where he mentions that lofty souls like Avraham, David and even converts can dodge the negative kelipot, by being born through sin.[22]


We have seen how R. Chaim Vital intertwines the fate of the Eirev Rav with the fate of Moshe. Interestingly, both[23] die in the desert and neither reach the land of Israel – their missions uncompleted.

It is most likely that R. Chaim Vital is speaking in metaphor and alluding to his role as a Moshe in supporting the new Eirev Rav, the conversos.

In the ensuing messianic drama playing out in Safed, it appears that the influx of conversos could now rectify and complete the work started in biblical times. These souls had been in limbo since the time of Moshe, waiting for a historical opportunity to replay and rectify the ancient events. Although Eits haDa’at Tov does not specifically mention conversos, it seems that this is its message and R. Chaim Vital can assume his role of Moshe/Messiah and finally fix the soul of Adam by reconnecting the lost Eirev Rav to Moshe - and the covenant at Sinai is remedied and restored.


Technically we must remember that the Torah only tells us that the Eirev Rav left Egypt during the Exodus. 

The Midrash adds that they were present at Sinai.

Medieval commentary informs us that they caused Isreal to serve the Golden Calf soon thereafter. 

The Zohar presents the evil and demonic character of the Eirev Rav.

Now Lurianic Kabbalah adds another layer where not only is the biblical narrative amplified and enhanced - but essentially rewritten as playing out in the present with the promise of a  retroactive tikkun and rectification of the original events of the past. 

[1] Shaul Magid, The Politics of (Un)Conversion: The ‘‘Mixed Multitude’’ (‘Erev Rav) as Conversos in Rabbi Hayyim Vital’s ‘Ets Ha-Da’at Tov.

[2] See The Battle for the Soul of the Arizal, in Root Causes of the Sabbatian Movement,.

[3] It must be pointed out that Magid describes his analysis of Eits haDa’at Tov, as a “speculative leap” because the work does not directly equate the Eirev Rav to conversos. However, based on a literary reading of the text and being cognitive of the historical context, the “leap” may not be so “speculative” considering that the work follows the typical Kabbalistc style of writing where the ‘intelligent will understand’.

[6] R. Chaim Vital, Sefer haChezyonot, Aescoli edition, 1954, p. 222

[7] Werblowsky, Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic (New York and Oxford, 1962).

[8]Although in a very different context, Rambam uses a similar description to differentiate between what Moshe experienced and what the Israelites experienced at Sinai. See The Guide of the Perplexed, 2.33, p. 364, Pines’s edition (Chicago, 1963).

[9] Parenthesis mine.

[10] Eits haDa’at Tov, 77c.

[12] See also the Zohar 1.25a.

[13] Ex. 23:7.

[14] Parentheses mine.

[17] Eits haDa’at Tov, 106d. For more on the distinction between Elokim, Havaya and Ein Sof see the paragraph The Coded Wording of R. Eibeschuetz's anti-Sabbatian Ban in Unimaginable Writings of R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz (and follow the other links provided there).

[18] Zohar 2.181b.

[19] See link in note 4.

[20] Eits haDa’at Tov, 173a.

[21] Inyane Shabbatai Zevi, ed. A. Friedman (Berlin, 1912), 88.

[22] Sha’ar haGilgulim, Introduction 38, p. 369, ed. Bnei Aaron. This concept, too, was taken up by the Sabbatians, although to a far greater extent than it was probably meant.

[23] That is, those of the Eirev Rav who did not get absorbed into the Israelites.


  1. Why do you spell "Eirev Rav" with a "u"?

  2. Thanks for Article.

    Just like to add:

    You say" Fascinatingly, he is the only commentator in the Vilna Shas to hold a PhD. "

    According to Bruria Hutner Meir Balaban contests shachter that he had a Phd (page 9 note 13)

    shachter, Student's Guide, xii . This is, however, contested by Meir Balaban , "Iggereth Reb Zvi Hirsch Chajes le6hir." in Abhandlunqen zur Errinerung an Hirsch Perez Chajes (~ienna, 1933), p. 1