Sunday 13 December 2020



First edition of R. Menachem Recanati's commentary on the Torah (Venice, 1523)


We have previously looked at the origins of the Zohar, one of (modern[1]) Kabbalah’s foundational works, which first emerged around 1290.  The traditional view is that it was authored by R. Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century Tannaic sage; whereas historical evidence, as well as some rabbinic sources, point to its author being R. Moshe de León (1240-1305). The latter claimed to have found the writings of R. Shimon bar Yochai from a thousand years earlier and simply published[2] them in the Zohar. Either way, the Zohar only surfaced at around 1290.

This article, based extensively on the research of Professor Oded Yisraeli[3] explores how three of the earliest mystics explained the origins of the Kabbalah in general.

Yisraeli takes an interesting tack because instead of relying on later scholarship, he focuses on early contemporaneous mystical sources which attempt to explain the origins of Kabbalah to other mystics. His research led him to uncover three primary yet divergent views on when and where Kabbalah originated.


These three independent views on the origins of Kabbalah, are taken from the early kabbalists who lived around the period of the appearance of the Zohar. These mystics were from Castile (central Christian Spain) Catalonia (north-eastern Christian Spain) and Provence (southern France).

13th century Spain

1) The first (and probably the earliest) position claims that Kabbalah was given to the Children of Israel at Sinai as part of the Revelation and the Oral Tradition.

2) The second approach claims that Kabbalah stemmed from an original revelation of mysticism by the prophet Eliyahu haNavi, beginning only around the 12th century, and then held exclusively within the first Kabbalistic groups particularly in Provence.

3) The third school maintains that Kabbalah was revealed to the first man, Adam, and hence has not just Jewish but universal relevance and significance.

Understanding these three views on the origins of Kabbalah is important because, as Yisraeli writes:

[A] study of a movement’s own self-etiology[4] reveals the ways in which fundamental questions relating to the nature and essence of the young movement were addressed and dealt with.




The view that Kabbalah originated from Sinai is expressed by both R. Ezra of Gerona[5] (d. c. 1245) and Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270). Both were instrumental in founding the Kabbalistic tradition in Catalonia, and although their versions differ, they concur that the origins of Kabbalah stem from Sinai.


R. Ezra of Gerona’s view is expressed in his commentary on the Song of Songs[6]:

[At Sinai] Moses and Aaron and…seventy of Israel’s elders and all of Israel attained an illumination concerning God’s reality and the essence of God’s glory . . .

 From that period until now, there never ceased to be a generation of Israel to which the heritage of wisdom, that is the knowledge of the divine Name, was transmitted through the tradition of Oral Torah.[7]


Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, similarly claims that mysteries such as the transmigration of souls, astrology, angelology and magic were conveyed to the Jewish people at Sinai.




A second and very different view is put forward by R. Avraham ben David of Posquieres[8] known as Ra’avad (1125-1198) and his son R. Yitzchak Sagi Nehor[9] known as Isaac the Blind. They maintained that Kabbalah was revealed by Elijah the Prophet to a specific group of their own ancestors who were kabbalists in southern France. This family group was headed by the Ra’avad’s father-in-law, R. Abraham b. Yitzchak of Narbonne[10] (southern France). Until that time, the mystical secrets remained hidden within the text of the Torah and were inaccessible.

There are slightly different versions of this story with some suggesting that Eliyahu haNavi revealed the secrets to the Ra’avad’s father and not to his father-in-law (see the Recanati source later). Nevertheless, this view is family-specific in that Eliyahu haNavi was said to have revealed the secrets of Kabbalah, for the first time, essentially to generations of one chosen family!

In fact, the revelation of Eliyahu haNavi is momentously marked by the subsequent Kabbalistic generations referring to themselves as “first/second/third and forth to Eliyahu”.

This unusual theory of connecting Eliyahu haNavi to one family of kabbalists is recorded by the Italian Kabbalist, R. Menahem Recanati (1223–1290) in his commentary on the Torah and is most often cited by the later generations kabbalists. According to Yisraeli, the Recanati source is the first to record this particular tradition.

Later, R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620) reflects this idea in his introduction to his Eitz Chaim:

“[R. Yitzchak Luria, through his practices, was brought to the level of] Elijah the Prophet, who constantly revealed himself and talked with him face to face, teaching him this wisdom. 

Likewise with R. Abraham b. David [the Ra’avad][11], of blessed memory, as noted above in the name of the Recanati.’’


Yisraeli is meticulous in his choice of manuscript for the Recanati text, and refers to the London MS Montefiore 354, as it “seems[12] to be the detailed, authentic source of the version in Recanati’s commentary on the Torah.”

This is the source:

Elijah the Prophet…revealed himself to our master David [the Ra’avad’s father], head of the court, opening for him a prayer opening in the wisdom of the Kabbalah. He passed this knowledge down to his son, R. Abraham, who passed it down to his son, our master Isaac Sagi Nahor, who never saw light in the world [because he was blind][13].

Our master Isaac Sagi Nahor had two disciples, one by the name of R. Ezra [of Gerona], who wrote a commentary on Canticles [the Song of Songs][14] and all the obscure legends in the Talmud on the basis of the wisdom of the Kabbalah, and his colleague the pious R. Azriel, who also wrote many commentaries informed by this wisdom.

From these two, this wisdom spread because it was taught to many. The mainspring of this wisdom was in the city of Gerona, where Nahmanides, of blessed memory, was and became wise in this doctrine, covering these things in his commentary on the Torah and alluding to them in his secrets.

This is a very interesting text because although he mentions them, Recanati goes against the views of R. Ezra of Gerona and Ramban that Kabbalah came through Sinai and was given in public to all of Israel. Instead, he claims it was given in private, through a new “Sinai” which is the Giluy Eliyahu, or Eliyahu haNavi’s revelation to the Ra’avad family. This view of Recanati is most perhaps the most innovative theory as to the origins of Kabbalah.

Yisraeli points out that not only is this an innovation, but it also becomes a determining factor deciding “who possesses the authentic Kabbalah and who is authorized to teach it.”  Thus, the only ones who received the mystical tradition were the family of the Ra’avad, and only they or their appointees were permitted to teach it for the first few generations before it became widespread in Gerona.


The context - both in terms of timing and geography - of this innovative and unusual Recanati source is most revealing. The Recanati text was produced around the time the Zohar was published in Castile.

We know the text originated from that time because (among other indications) Ramban is mentioned as zichrono livracha (of blessed memory) and he passed away in 1270. The text, therefore, would have been produced around the end of the 13th century, just when the Zohar was being popularised in 1290.

It appears that the Recanati innovation was an attempt to draw the new mystical authority away from Castile and the Zohar, and focus on the ‘true’ Kabbalah of Eliyahu haNavi which was emanating from (initially southern France and by then particularly) Gerona, situated just to the east of Castile.

Yisraeli points out that Recanati unabashedly stresses that:

[T]he mainspring of this [new mystical][15] wisdom is in the city of Gerona.

One of the chief differences between the Kabbalah of Castile and the Kabbalah of Catalonia (Gerona) was that the Catalonian Kabbalah was considered more conventional than the creative and daring Castilian Kabbalah as exemplified in the Zohar.[16]




The third early source describing the origins of Kabbalah is found in the writings of R. Moshe de León (1240-1305) and the Zohar itself.  Yisraeli writes that:

[T]he Castilian zoharic climate produced another revolutionary narrative of origins.

According to the Zohar [17], Kabbalah was first revealed to Adam, making it a universal and never mind not just an exclusive family tradition but not even an exclusively Jewish tradition. Kabbalah belonged to the world. (There is also the idea that it later split into good and bad Kabbalah at the time of Avraham.)

According to R. Moshe de León, in one of his other works Shekel haKodesh:

[T]he essence and foundation of all wisdoms…Kabbalah…was given to Moses at Sinai and passed down to Joshua and the elders to the prophets, who passed it down to the men of the Great Assembly like the receiving of the Torah, and they bequeathed its contents one to another.

But this path of wisdom was given to Adam when God placed him in the Garden of Eden and gave him the secret of this wisdom, which was with him until he sinned and was expelled from the Garden. Then, when he died, his son…inherited it, and this wisdom subsequently passed down to Noah…until the last generations stood on Mount Sinai and bequeathed it to Moses…and from there every person received it from another, through all the other generations.[18]

Being part of the Castilian mystical fraternity, R. Moshe de León ignored the particularistic Catalonian notion of Eliyahu’s revelation to the Ra’avad’s family and makes no mention of it.

However, on reading his text, one is immediately struck by a paradox. R. Moshe de León starts by bringing the conventional view (of R. Ezra of Gerona and Ramban) that Kabbalah was revealed at Sinai, and then throws in the broad universalistic concept of the mystical teachings having been given foremostly to all of mankind through Adam.

This creates a great conundrum in that we are now not sure if Moshe received the Kabbalah at Sinai together with the Torah, or if he received it as a spiritual inheritance from Adam through Avraham? And if he did receive the mystical tradition from previous generations, then what mysticism did he receive at Sinai?

According to Yisraeli, R. Moshe de León “deliberately obscures this point at the seam of the two traditions[19] - leaving us with perhaps more questions than answers as to how the early mystics understood and described the origins of Kabbalah.

Add to that the apparent battle for control of the emerging 13th century Kabbalah between Castille and Catalonia and the picture is obfuscated even more, making it extremely difficult for future generations of kabbalists to explain the origins of early mysticism.

See next article for an expansion on the view of the Zohar and R. Moshe de León.

Additional reading: Who Owned the Early Kabbalah?

[1] The term ‘modern’ is used in this context so as to distinguish between the more recent Zohar and the older Heichalot and Merkavah mystical literature. [See A Window into pre-Zoharic Literature.]

[2] The Zohar pre-dated the invention of printing, so the term ‘publication’ obviously refers to its manuscript copies.

[3] Jewish Medieval Traditions concerning the Origins of the Kabbalah, by Oded Yisraeli.

[4] Defined as the study of causes, reasons and origins.

[5] R. Ezra of Gerona was a student of R. Yitzchak Sagi Nehor (known as Isaac the Blind or רַבִּי יִצְחַק סַגִּי נְהוֹר), the blind son of the Ra’avad (Avraham ben David of Posquieres, in Provence). Bear in mind that Ezra ben Shlomo of Gerona and Azriel ben Menachem al-Taras are often confused.  However, based the poems of a contemporary rabbi, Meshulam ben Shlomo da Piera who also lived in Gerona it is evident that Ezra and Azriel were two different individuals who lived in Gerona at the same time. According to Graetz they were two brothers. According to Recanati (see later), Ezra and Azriel were colleagues and both were students of Isaac the Blind. The Ezra referenced in this article is the Ezra ben Shlomo who wrote his commentary on the Shir haShirim.

[6] This commentary is often ascribed to Ramban. The Altona edition of 1764 was published under Ramban’s name.

[7] Rabbi Ezra Ben Solomon, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Other Kabbalistic Commentaries, ed. and trans. S. Brody (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1999), 18–24.

[8] Posquieres is in southern France, known today as Vauvert. Pronounced Poski’er.

[9] Sagi Nehor literally means of much light which could be a euphemism for being blind, or it might mean that although could not see, his world was filled with enough light from his teachings.

[10] Technically, R. Abraham b. Yitzchak of Narbonne (c. 1080-85 – 1158) is known as Ra’avad II, and his student and son-in-law is known as Ra’avad III (the famous critic of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah). [If you are wondering, as I was, why, R. Abraham b. Yitzchak of Narbonne would be referred to as Ra’avad, it appears to be an acronym for R. Avraham Av bet Din.] R. Avraham ibn Daud (d. 1180), ironically a predecessor of Maimonides’ rationalism, is known as Ra’avad I. Generally, in usage, Ra’avad refers to Ra’avad III.

[11] Parentheses mine.

[12] Yisraeli points out that we are not entirely sure who authored this document.

[13] Parenthesis mine.

[14] Parentheses mine.

[15] Parenthesis mine.

[16] Yisraeli reminds us that, as Liebes notes, the Zohar is woven out of many voices; thus this characteristic is not necessarily valid with respect to some of its layers: Yehuda Liebes, ‘‘How the Zohar Was Written’’ (Hebrew), Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 8, ed. J. Dan (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1989): 1–71.

[17] The Zohar continues along this same universalistic line by commentating on the verse “[T]his is the book of the generations of Adam’’ (Gen 5.1):


This is the book—an actual book, as we have established. When Adam was in the Garden of Eden, the blessed Holy One brought down a book for him by the hand of Raziel, the holy angel appointed over supernal, sacred mysteries…

[T]he holy angel Hadraniel encountered him and exclaimed: Adam, Adam, treasure away the precious glory of your Lord, for permission has not been granted to supernal beings to know it, only to you.

So he kept it hidden until he left the Garden of Eden, daily wielding treasures of his Lord, discovering supernal mysteries of which supernal ministers are unaware.

As soon as he sinned, violating his Lord’s command, that book flew away from him. Adam slapped himself on the head and wept. He entered the waters of Gihon up to his nape, till the water moldered his skin and his luster faded. At that moment the blessed Holy One signaled to Raphael, who returned the book to him. Adam engaged in it and left it to his son Seth, and so to all those generations until it reached Abraham. (Zohar 1, 55b, Pritzker ed., 311-13.)


Thus, according to this innovative Zohar, we have the notion of Kabbalah being originally given to Adam as part of a universal and cultural heritage for all mankind, not just for Jews. Until this point, it was generally assumed that Kabbalah was a special inheritance of the Jewish people alone. It was always understood to be the inner-face which revealed the deepest secrets of the external system of mitzvot and prayer, which, by definition are peculiar to the Jewish people.


[18] Shekel haKodesh, ed. Mopsik (Los Angeles, 1996), 17– 18.

[19] I.e., the tradition that the Kabbalah came from Sinai and the tradition that Kabbalah came from Adam.


  1. Judaism did not develop in a vacuum. The Neo-Platonist, Plotinus (c. 204/5-270), is recorded as having developed the idea of emanations from the Divine One that resulted in three levels of reality: 1) the highest is intelligence and Divine mind (nous); 2) next comes the world of nature (world soul); and 3) lowest is the physical body and spirit (soul).The schools of Plato and Aristotle are not traditional Jewish bodies, but many of their concepts are incorporated in the talmud and in Jewish thought.
    My original commentaries and copies of Shimon bar Yochai's work are very faded and therefore illegible, but I don't recall him being widely quoted on the Zohar by his contemporaries.

    Maybe Plotinius and the neo-Platonists can be considered as a fourth school of thought for the origin of the Zohar. After all, many regard the Zohar as blasphemous anyway. Blasphemous Hellenistic concepts are not unheard of in Judaism.

  2. There is also the account given by Rabbi El’azar of Worms, ha-Rokeaḥ in MS Paris BN 772, 60a. There he describes how the authentic nusaḥ, including secrets, was transmitted by a certain exiled Baghdadi named Abu Aharon. See here: