Sunday 24 January 2021



The Pledge of Allegiance to R. Chaim Vital effectively making him the keeper of the secrets of the Ari Zal.


From around the sixteenth century, rabbinic leadership experienced a dramatic change. No longer were the credentials of leadership solely based on knowledge and erudition. Now leadership became largely defined by personal charisma.

This does not mean that knowledge played no role at all, but it does mean that it was no longer the main criterion.

In this article, based extensively on the work by Professor Morris Faierstein[1], we shall explore some of the effects of this change in the style of rabbinic leadership.


A classic example of a great medieval rabbinic authority would be Maimonides (1135-1204). Yet, although his influence on Jewish thinking and law is unquestionable, we have no indication that his personality, charisma or lack thereof, had any effect on the extent of his influence.

As Faierstein puts it:

His influence was based on his legal writings, primarily his Mishne Torah…

However, despite his great halakhic influence, there is little evidence that Maimonides’ personal religious practices or preferences influenced others directly.

His disciples did not record his practices and then attempt to emulate them.

His own son, Abraham (1186-1237), followed an independent spiritual path quite different from his father’s.[2]

Thus, we see that Maimonides’ lasting influence was essentially a result of his writings and not from the details or particulars of his personal life.


While Rambam did characterise the style of rabbinic leadership prior to the sixteenth century, there were some exceptions, and these were mainly within the mystical circles. Two charismatic figures which stand out in this regard are R. Yehudah heChassid (1150-1217) the leader of the Chassidei Ashkenaz (German Pietists) and R. Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291) the founder of the radically mystical Prophetic Kabbalah. In both these cases, however, their influence was confined to their relatively smaller groups of followers.

Faierstein writes that suddenly during the sixteenth century, a dramatic change took place:

In contrast, the influence of Isaac Luria [the Ari Zal][3], the central figure in the mystical revival of the sixteenth century, along with his colleagues and disciples transformed the fundamental structures of Judaism.


During the sixteenth century, the city of Safed in northern Israel surpassed Jerusalem as a centre of importance. The population grew dramatically in a short period of time due largely to the influx of exiles from the Spanish and Portuguese Expulsions in 1492 and 1497 respectively.

This growth is attributed to two primary causes, one commercial and the other spiritual:

a) The main commerce was the wool trade and the exiles were adept at that industry. Additionally, Safed was situated on major trade routes.

b) Spiritually, it was close to the graves of R. Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues, who were believed to be connected to the Zohar[4], and these graves became a focus of the new Kabbalistic tradition that was emerging from Safed. It is believed, for example, that the Ari Zal (1534-1572) and his student R. Chaim Vital were able to identify the graves of R. Shimon bar Yochai and others, with the help of Elijah the Prophet.

Faierstein explains:

Direct communion with the spirits of the deceased mystical figures at their graves through various mystical practices would become an important means of understanding and exploring the mystical tradition in Safed.

From around 1530 a number of Kabbalists began to move to Safed. These included R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575) and R. Shlomo Alkabetz (1500-1576). The mystical movement grew with the addition of rabbis like Moshe Cordovera (R. Karo’s student and R. Alkabetz’s brother-in-law), who wrote more than most Kabbalists did, and created a synthesis of much of previous medieval Kabbalah.

But the main Kabbalist who “revolutionized both Kabbalah and the concept of Jewish religious leadership” was the Ari Zal. Ironically, although the Ari Zal’s name is synonymous with Safed and its Kabbalah, he only spent the last two years of his life in that city - and additionally, he wrote very little.

The Safed Kabbalists, particularly the Ari Zal, were scrutinized and in some cases every recorded detail of their personal lives developed into a hagiographic[5] body of literature. These practices were later adopted by the followers and became accepted and widespread, sometimes even against the earlier traditional practices. This veneration of the personality of the rabbinic leader was an innovation of the sixteenth century.


After the Ari Zal’s untimely death at the age of 38, stories began to circulate extolling his virtues and magical abilities. Thirty years later, R. Shloimel Dresnitz arrived in Safed in order to study Kabbalah and he collected some of these stories. He wrote letters to a friend in Poland describing some of the stories he had heard from numerous people around Safed. These were later published under the title Shivchei haAri (In Praise of the Ari).[6]


Among the magical and mystical abilities that R. Dresnitz recorded was the Ari Zal’s way of tracing a person’s soul all the way back to Adam. It was said that he could look at someone’s forehead and tell what sin they had committed and then he would prescribe an appropriate remedy to fix the sin. He could understand the language of birds and animals as well as exorcise evil spirits from one possessed. These, together with stories about other mystical rabbis all helped build up strong charismatic profiles around the Kabbalists of Safed.

Exorcism became very popular in sixteenth century Safed after they were first performed by R. Yosef Karo, best known as the author of the legal code, the Shulchan Aruch.

[See A Mystical Side to R. Yosef Karo.]

The majority of exorcisms in Safed, however, were performed by the Ari Zal. These practices now became the new measure of the personality of the “holy man” that was beginning to develop. A charismatic facilitator of these types of mystical events would quickly gain a following and a great respect.


Although the expression Kitvei haAri (the writings of the Ari) is often used, there are in fact very few writings of his. He left a commentary on a section of the Zohar, Sifra deTzniuta, which he wrote as a young man, and a collection of some pious customs as well as three Shabbat hymns. He was happy, instead, to focus his esoteric teachings only on a small and worthy group of elite individuals.

Even one of his important students, R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620) kept his own writings which included his interpretations of his master’s teachings, locked away in a cabinet and gave instructions to have them buried with him when he died.

There was also a veritable Battle for the Soul of the Ari Zal which took place amongst some of the Ari Zal’s students and later editors, who all individually claimed to have been his pre-eminent representative.

Faierstein writes:

The aura of esotericism and secrecy that surrounded Luria’s kabbalistic teachings continued for centuries.

What this means is that in the decades after the Ari Zal, there was little real intellectual material available from him and his whole venerated image - based primarily on the recollections of others - would have had to have rested primarily on his perceived charismatic persona.

Luria became the role model for the “kabbalistic holy man,” a figure whose charismatic authority was built on his perceived abilities as a mystic and visionary. Virtually all later charismatic figures took Luria as their role model and tried to emulate his abilities as a sign of their own charismatic authority.


The Ari Zal was expected to be the Mashiach ben David in 1575 (when it was commonly believed that the Messiah would appear) - but after he had passed away three years earlier, in 1572, his status was diminished to that Mashiach ben Yosef:

According to Faierstein:

…his status was reinterpreted as a Messiah of Joseph figure whose death would be an early part of the messianic drama.

This way, he still was a messianic figure, just not the Mashiach ben David.

Similarly, when the Messiah did not arrive in 1575:

the significance of the year was reinterpreted to mean that it was the beginning of the period when the advent of Messiah could be expected at any time.

These are two examples of not just manipulating the vicissitudes of reality to favour messianic outcomes but also of ensuring that the prestige and charisma of all the participants are preserved.


The Ari Zal’s student, R. Chaim Vital wrote an autobiography entitled Sefer Chezyonot (Book of Visions) which actually deals with the matter of charisma - or more accurately, with R. Vital’s frustration over his perceived charisma not being as effective as he expected.

He believed himself capable of great success in rabbinic leadership because he considered himself to have had charisma. However, as Faierstein says:

[H]is life was a constant struggle for recognition and acceptance...

Vital informs us that the elevated nature of his soul had been predicted even before his birth.

In his youth, a variety of diviners and heavenly messengers also predicted that Vital was destined for greatness. [7]

Yet none of those predictions cast him in the foreground of effective public leadership.

Interestingly, we see that initially, R. Vital kept his distance from the Ari Zal, the new arrival to Safed in 1570. For about nine months, R. Vital stayed away from him, believing he knew more about Kabbalah than the Ari Zal himself. This means the teacher and student only spent just over a year together before the Ari’s passing in 1572.

Furthermore, the relationship between the teacher and student was never a typical hierarchical student-teacher relationship. Vital acknowledged the Ari Zal as his teacher, but simultaneously the teacher recognized the messianic potential of R. Vital's soul.

Faierstein writes:

After eventually joining the Ari, Vital quickly asserted himself as Luria's most important disciple. Vital even claimed that Luria had only come to Safed for the purpose of teaching him.


In that same year, 1575, R. Chaim Vital gathered a group of twelve other students and in an attempt at appointing himself as the sole heir and successor to the teachings of the Ari Zal, and they signed a Pledge of Allegiance[8], committing themselves to only study the teachings of the Ari as taught exclusively by Vital. This may have been another way of attempting to procure a secure a charismatic following.

R. Chaim Vital not only saw himself as the charismatic and primary successor to the Ari Zal, he also considered himself as the successor to R. Yosef Karo.[9] He writes that in one of his dreams, he was told by G-d to sit in a certain location in heaven which had been reserved specifically for R. Yosef Karo.[10]


Faierstein writes about a cognitive dissonance that R. Chaim Vital must have experienced - considering himself charismatic and worthy of positions of leadership, yet his reality was so different:

Vital was disturbed that others did not give him the recognition he felt he deserved, particularly in Damascus. His desire to understand the dissonance between his inner elevated status and his external reality was the motivation that led him to write this autobiography.

R. Vital records a dream he had, where he spoke to the Messiah[11] - and he speaks of another dream where he received a letter from the Messiah who said he was coming soon but needed R. Vital’s help in getting the people to first do proper penitence.[12]

He writes that he was told by the kings of the demons, who had been summoned by magical means, that his sole reason for coming into this world was to get people to repent and that that would bring the redemption.[13] In another place, he refers to the angels, who also had been summoned by magical incantations who confirmed this mission of his.[14]

R. Chaim Vital further writes that he was reminded that the redemption depends on him and his ability to bring people to repentance.[15]  A plague that caused havoc in Damascus was blamed on its people not paying heed to him.[16]

From Sefer Chezyonot we see that R. Chaim Vital differed from his teacher, in that he actively sought out leadership positions and was not content to just teach a small group as the Ari Zal was.  He held a number of rabbinic positions including Jerusalem, Damascus and Sicily and it appears that he was even fired from his job in Sicily.[17] But he expected more. R. Chaim Vital’s life, as we have seen by his own account, was indeed “a constant struggle for recognition and acceptance...” believing, all the time, that he had the charisma to be recognised more universally.



In the past, a rabbi had to prove his erudition in order to be accepted and recognised as a scholar. During the sixteenth century, while of course scholarship played a role, the primary characteristic that brought rabbinic authority in its wake, was charisma. This was a new era of Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah in particular, and only those who possessed the mystical charisma, were recognised as legitimate leaders. Even those who did not subscribe to Lurianic Kabbalah were still under the influence of at least some of the ethos of that movement which had changed spiritual vantage points forever.

We see from the account of R. Chaim Vital himself, that even if one thinks one has charisma but the outside world does not recognise that charisma, then - notwithstanding the Messiah sending his letters, and angels and demons being summoned - one is powerless to achieve rabbinic recognition.

The Ari Zal was perceived by the people to have had charisma; but his student was not included in that perception.

Fascinatingly, the two movements which followed after the success and popularity of Lurianic Kabbalah - Sabbatianism and Chasidism - both similarly had leaders who had two points in common; they had extreme charisma and they left little or no writings. 

In all these three historical movements which followed in quick succession sweeping across the Jewish world, the students, prophets and followers soon made up for the sparsity of literature from the leadership. The leadership roles in these last three major movements were determined primarily by charisma. And that charisma was defined by the masses and the beholders - not by the individual leaders themselves, who in the past would have created their own intellectual legacy.

Looking at the large groups and movements which abound today within the Jewish world, one wonders whether anything has changed? Perhaps the followers feel more secure being part of a charismatic leader's wide success.

Would it be possible for a hypothetical and (apparently) non-charismatic Rambam or Kotzker Rebbe to be recognised in today’s society - or are we only the era of charismatic Judaism with no space for individuality and independence of thought even within a Torah framework?




Translation of the Pledge of Allegiance:

'We the undersigned have pledged ourselves to form a single company to worship the Divine Name and study His Law day and night, as we shall be instructed by the perfect and divine Sage, the Rav and Teacher, R. Hayyim Vital (may his light shine forth!), and we shall learn with him the true wisdom and be faithful in spirit, concealing all that he shall tell us, and we shall not trouble him by pressing him too much for things that he does not wish to reveal to us, and we shall not reveal to others any secret of all that we shall hear spoken in truth by his mouth, nor of all that he taught us in the past, nor even of what he taught us in the lifetime of our Teacher, the great Rav, R. Yitshak Luria Ashkenazi (of blessed memory) during all that time; and even what we heard from the lips of our Teacher, the above-named Rav (of blessed memory), we shall not be able to reveal without his permission, since we should not understand these things if he had not explained them to us. This pledge, taken under solemn oath in the Name of the Lord, concerns our Teacher, the above mentioned Rav, R. Hayyim (may his light shine forth!); and the duration of this pledge is from today for ten consecutive years. Today is the second day of the week, the 25th Menahem Av, 5335 of the creation [1575], here in Tsfath [Safed] (may it be built and established speedily in our days!); and all these words are clear and valid.'[18]

[1] Morris M. Faierstein, Charisma and Anti-Charisma in Safed: Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital.

[3] Parenthesis mine.

[5] Hagiography is defined as: “the writing of the lives of saints and “an admiring or idealized biography”. (Hagiographa refers to the Writings or the Ketuvim,  such as Psalms, Proverbs etc. The third section of the TaNaCh, after the Torah and Prophets.)

[6] M. Benayahu, Toldot haAri. Jerusalem: Machon Ben Zvi, 1967. 

[7] M. Faierstein, Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets. New York: Paulist Press, 1999, 1.1 - 1.6. 

[9] Jewish Mystical Autobiographies. Ibid 2.1.

[10] Ibid. 2.5.

[11] Ibid. 2.2.

[12] Ibid. 2.42.

[13] Ibid. 1.21.

[14] Ibid. 1.23 and 1.28.

[15] Ibid. 3.33.

[16] Ibid. 3.45.

[17] Ibid. 3.49.

[18] Translation from: ‘Pinsk Historical Volume’. History of the Jews of Pinsk, 1506-1941. Edited by Dr Wolf Zeev Rabinowitsch.

1 comment:

  1. One of the smaller sects of Judaism which was floundering in Galcia in the 17th century was the Karaites. More or less at the same time as Shabtai Tzvi had given his lingering form of Kaballah to Europe and had left for the Ottoman empire, Josef ben Samuel (ha-Mashbir) arrived on the scene. He brought new life to a community which had been "enshrouded with impenetrable mist" when he arrive in Halicz in about 1670. Virtually solely through his dynamic efforts he revitalised the community. He also happening to introduce Kabbalah into Karaitism (Funny how Kabbalah seems to have influenced he entire spectrum of Judaism at more or less the same time) As Hazzan, he also introduced some reforms which seem to have been adopted by the Rabbinic community such as :
    - the obligation to wear tzitzit; and
    - the avoidance of vain conversations during prayers
    - the contribution to communal charity
    He also regularly engaged with the Rabbinic authorities and introduced Karaim as both a literary language, authoring/ compiling several books and introduced it as the everyday language of the street. The Karaites also established a better relationship with the Polish authorities than the Rabbinic Jews.
    There is something to be said for charismatic leaders!