Sunday 21 May 2023

430) Did Yehuda Halevi contribute to the theurgy of Kabbalah?

Sefer haKuzari with the Kol Yehuda commentary by R. Yehuda Moscato. 


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Avishai Bar-Asher,[1] examines how R. Yehuda Halevi (1075-c.1141) the great Spanish physician, poet, philosopher and author of the Kuzari  may not only have contributed to medieval Kabbalah but may have introduced parts of its theurgical elements. 

[Note: Theurgy is almost a magical approach to mysticism, where, by doing certain actions and rituals, or by reciting certain formulas, one can influence the Divine Being. This is as opposed to Theosophy, which is more of a theoretical study of mystical concepts without necessarily trying to influence the cosmos.] 

Sunday 14 May 2023

429) Were Jews expelled from Portugal in 1497?


During the late fifteenth century, two sad dates stood out for the Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain and in 1497 they were expelled from Portugal. This article, based extensively on the research by Andrée Aelion Brooks,[1] discusses the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and examines the question of the expulsion from Portugal in 1497. 

Sunday 7 May 2023

428) R. Heshil Tzoref and a theology of vengeance: How traumatic experiences shape discomforting theologies


Rare references to Sefer HaTzoref which reached Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolioth 


The eighteenth-century Jewish mystical movement the Chassidic movement was founded by R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (c.1700-1760). It has evolved today into one of the largest and most identifiable of all the Jewish movements. Yet the causes that led to its appearance are still debated by scholars. While I take the view that its major influencing factor was its immediate predecessor, the mystical Sabbatian movement which arose in the aftermath of the false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), most scholarship tends to seek out other reasons for Chassidism’s appearance on the scene of history. In keeping with this majority trend, this brief study explores (and questions) one such view: that the persecutions following the Khmelnytsky massacres which began in 1648, coupled with the theological reaction to that violence, were most likely to have been the overwhelming influence leading to the rise of the Chassidic movement. Previous scholarship argues that the vehemence of the unrest and particularly the theological responses to it, led not just to the formation of the Chassidic movement, but to the birth of the earlier Sabbatian movement in the first instance, and even to the later conservatism of the Mitnagdic opposition movement which arose to counter Chassidism. In other words, the physical persecutions and their spiritual responses spawned not one, but three important Jewish movements; Sabbatianism, Chassidism and Mitnagdism. Although I do not necessarily subscribe to the approach that Chassidism emerged primarily as a reaction to persecution, I do bring support for aspects of it here from a little-known and under-studied Sabbatian personality who may have been a critical link between Sabbatianism and Chassidism, R. Heshil Tzoref (1632-1699). I do this because he introduces a new and unsuspected dynamic. This dynamic is vengeance coupled with its concomitant theological justification and validation. The problem is that if one takes the persecutions as a primary cause for the birth particularly of Chassidism, it becomes very difficult to reconcile a theology of cathartic vengeance with a spiritual and mystical movement.[1]


The simultaneous emergence of Sabbatianism and Chassidism

As the seventeenth century fused with the eighteenth century, the two “major mystical-messianic-charismatic movements,” as Rachel Elior (2012:85) tellingly describes them, Sabbatianism and Chassidism, emerged relatively simultaneously. The Khmelnytsky persecutions were still fresh in the minds of the people who had first-hand experience of its horrors. Both movements were informal as they did not seek permission from the recognised rabbinic authorities. 

Israel Halpern (1969:55-60) points out that around this time, less than one per cent of the Jewish population was eligible to vote for its communal and rabbinic leadership. This was because only the wealthy, who paid taxes, were permitted to vote. One can understand how, in a non-representative societal environment like this, charismatic and ground-up movements could find fertile soil. They offered social elevation and spiritual status to the average individual.  It seems, therefore, quite feasible to assume that both movements arose in response to the similar concerns of persecution under Khmelnytsky from without, and societal neglect from within.

The Khmelnytsky massacres

Although chronologically, Sabbatianism preceded Chassidism, Elior maintains that both were “spiritual responses to the tragic circumstances” of the Khmelnytsky massacres, also known as the Cossack–Polish War. While these massacres are often associated with the date 1648 when they began, it must be remembered that they continued for about twenty years up to 1668. This was already two years after Shabbatai Tzvi (the founder of the Sabbatian movement) had officially been discredited and branded as a false Messiah when he converted to Islam. It was also just thirty (or thirty-two, or perhaps only twenty-two)[2] years before the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement) was born. 

Yet even after 1668, attacks against Jews continued. More than one hundred thousand Jews were killed by the Cossacks between 1646 and 1768 in Ukraine, and Jews were subjected to pogroms in areas where the Polish army had withdrawn.[3] The Greek-Orthodox Ukrainian serfs rebelled against the Polish Catholics and the Jews were caught up in the attacks as they often served as administrators for the Polish nobility. The Cossacks also attacked the Roman Catholic clergy and the civilian population, resulting in revenge attacks and “savage reprisals” by Prince Jeremi Wiśniowiecki (Davies 2005:351).

 Documentary evidence spanning a century and a half between 1650 and the end of the eighteenth century shows how Jews were emotionally devastated and similarly intent on revenge. Included in this body of literature is also a strong expression of messianic hope (Elior 2012:86). The effects and dramatic consequences of the Khmelnytsky massacres are not lost to Joseph Citron (n.d.:32-33), Jacob Barnai (1995:175) or Moshe Rosman (1982:6) either. Davies (2005:352) speaks of “[t]he strains of incessant war” which “caused internal inflammations.” Some of these “inflammations” are also evident in the Kabbalistic literature produced during that time.

R. Heshil Tzoref and a theology of vengeance

An extreme but little-known example of the need for revenge may be found in the writings of the Sabbatian rabbi, R. Heshil Tzoref. Based on the Hebrew alphanumeric system where each Hebrew letter carries a numerical value,[4] the following ‘calculations’ will help us understand how numerology was used to great effect in Sabbatian Kabbalah (mysticism). Sabbatians were adept at linking the numerical values of certain Hebrew words and dates to biblical verses and Kabbalistic concepts, and then relating them directly to historical events playing out in ‘real-time.’

Yehuda Liebes[5] (2007:7-8) shows how R. Heshil Tzoref had three distinct periods of spiritual awakening and increased mystical activity. These occurred during the years 1648 (= ת״ח = 408, corresponding to the Hebrew date of [5]408[6], the beginning of the Khmelnytsky pogroms); 1666 (= תכ״ו = 426, the year Shabbatai Tzvi apostatised to Islam) and; 1688 (= תמ״ח = 448, a seemingly random date other than being exactly forty years after 1648). These three dates and phases are mystically described and interpreted as follows: 

1) R. Heshil Tzoref found a ‘hint’ to the Khmelnytsky pogroms in the Hebrew year ת״ח (408=1648)  which he linked to the biblical phrase דֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר (4+200+4+200=408) which is found at the end of the verse מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַיהֹוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר, “God will be at war with Amalek in every generation” (Exodus 17:16). Thus, in 1648 (408) Amalek (represented by Khmelnytzky) is identified as the evil entity of the generation, and those who fight him wage God’s war. 

2) In 1666 (426)[7] the previous but incomplete biblical representation of דֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר is conceptualised as becoming the fuller דור ודור with the addition of three extra vavim (letter vavs, each of which has a numerical value of 6) which now makes 426 (408 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 426).[8] The spiritual battle that was started in 1648 (408) is, now intensified (with the three extra vavs) during the year 1666 (426). This means that despite the apostasy of the Messiah in 1666, Shabbatai Tzvi’s followers now have to dig deeply to ‘understand’ the spiritual necessity for the ‘messianic betrayal,’ because the heat of the battle against evil has just intensified. This explains the conversion of a Jewish Messiah to Islam as part of the intensely extenuating but necessary circumstances. 

3) In 1688 − forty years after 1648 (perhaps corresponding to the biblical delay between the exodus and the promised entry to the land) − God’s final retribution and victory were to have taken place. God was going to mete out revenge on Edom which came to represent Christianity (as Ishmael came to represent Islam). The year 1688 (448) was selected for the following reason: The biblical Esau (representing Edom=Christendom) was born while Jacob (representing the Jewish people) was clutching at his heel. The biblical expression וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ בַּעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו in the verse, “And his [Jacob’s] hand was clutching (the heel of Esau)” (Genesis 25:26), has a numerical value of 448.[9] 

In this threefold mystical and numerological conceptualisation by R. Heshil Tzoref, the evil Amalek/Khmelnytzky is identified in 1648 (408) and the scheme to dethrone that evil is begun. The battle intensifies in 1666 (426) with the paradox of the Jewish Messiah’s apostasy to Islam (a necessary Sabbatian Kabbalistic requirement known as “yeridah tzorech aliya,” to enter forbidden regions so as to elevate them). The process is completed by the “clutching the heel” of, or vengeance against, Esau/Christianity in 1688 (448).

R. Heshil Tzoref’s elaborate system of mysticism includes Esau’s grandson, Tsefo (צפו=176), corresponds in numerology to Polin (Poland) (פולין =176). Samael is the guardian of both Esau and Tsefo, which means Samael is also the guardian of Poland, hence Poland represents the Christian the Kingdom of Edom. This construct is strengthened by similarity between Tsefo (צפו) and North (צפון). North (צפון =226) is then connected to Polin-Lita (Poland and Lithuania) (פולין ליטא=226). Then R. Heshil Tzoref relates all this to a verse from Jeremiah (1:14): “out of the north shall evil break forth,” and R. Heshil Tzoref explains that “when the messianic redemption arrives, it will first manifest in the north, which is, Poland-Lithuania.”[10]

It could be said that, over a period of forty years, R. Heshil Tzoref believed he could reframe, if not cosmically realign, the three forces of Amalek (1648), Islam (1666) and Christianity (1688), thus preparing for final messianic era. And in his mystical mind, all these stages are presented as being supported by biblical verses.

The Tzoref ‘incident’

In a shocking and brutal Sabbatian mystical interpretation, the vengeance of 1688 is described in sexual terms − but violently so, as assaulting a virgin − because the year 1688 (448), the last of the three stages, has the same numerical value as הבתולה (=448=the virgin). Reading between the lines and considering the appetite for revenge for the blood libels and massacres against Jews, this may be referring to a reprisal attack to right the horrors of 1648 and it may have targeted a Christian virgin, perhaps a veiled reference to Mary. It is difficult to sift the facts from the innuendos, but Liebes writes:

“It seems to me that this matter was not written about before the event, but was [instead] described as prophecy after the fact (vaticinium ex eventu) [and it was] an event that had already occurred on history’s stage, and in the lifetime of R. Heshil. It is possible that the redemption [to be brought about] by R. Heshil was bound up with engaging with a virgin of flesh and blood, similar to what we find with many other messianic characters throughout history. It seems that this sexual encounter remained within the memory of the Chassidim[11] of R. Heshil for the next generations, and the words of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov [a follower of the Vilna Gaon, representing the opposition or Mitnagdic camp opposing Chassidism] hint at this [encounter as well][12]” (Liebes 2007: 8)[13]

Interpreting the Tzoref ‘incident’

It is very difficult to know how exactly to interpret this apparent event and identify the perpetrator and the victim. But it is clear that the logic of restorative consequence and cathartic vengeance, in one form or another, features in the Sabbatian mysticism of R. Heshil Tzoref. This must have been fuelled all the more by a society overcome by the fear of pogroms, persecuted by a proliferation of blood libels and seeking revenge against those Christians – or more accurately, the “Bishops of the Catholic Church in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth” (Elior 2012:102) − who considered Jew to be “God-killers.” With the irony that Catholic clergy and civilians themselves subject to attacks by the Cossacks, and their corresponding reprisals against the Cossacks, it is no wonder that this ecclesiastical chaos in Poland has been described as “God’s playground” (Davies 2005). To add to the ironies and chaos of the time, 'Khmyel'nitskiy' was later remembered (in Soviet Russia) as “a Moses who led his people's exodus from Polish bondage towards the great Russian homeland” (Davies 2005:353).

According to Janusz Tazbir, a foremost Polish historian, specializing in the culture and religion of Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:

“The indignation at the ‘nation of God-killers’ was inflamed by the belief that the Jews remained blind to the splendor of the true faith instead of doing penance for their crime. They had committed the sin of ingratitude and, for this; God, for whom ‘nothing is uglier than ingratitude’, had turned away from them and transferred His grace to, among other people, the Poles” (Tazbir 1998:235).

Contextualisation is vital in helping to understand the sentiments of all parties involved in any form of socio-religious disorder but should never justify outrageous behaviour. Still, it contributes to the explanation of why ideologies adopt a sense of radical immediacy and antinomian urgency:

“Sabbatian teachings entailed messianic hopes of meta-historical vengeance against those who had murdered thousands of helpless Jews, as well as messianic hopes for redemption of those who survived” (Elior 2012:87).

R. Heshil Tzoref is regarded by Liebes as one of the forerunners of the Chassidic movement and is somewhere between Sabbatianism and Chassidism. This emphasises the effects and influences of the Khmelnytzky massacres – with their pogroms, ensuing blood libels and the need for cosmic vengeance and restorative messianism − on Sabbatian and Chassidic ideology.


Perhaps now it is easier to understand why Elior (although she does not mention R. Heshil Tzoref at all) is convinced of the extended effects of the massacres and sees them ultimately manifesting as not just one or two, but three, distinct responses: 1) the birth of the Sabbatian movement; 2) the rise of Chassidic movement; and 3) the emergence of the Mitnagdic movement of the conservative Orthodox who saw themselves as the centrist and “established traditional rabbinical leadership” that opposed both the new movements of Sabbatians and Chassidim (Elior 2012:89).

Traumatic national events are never to be minimised in terms of the affected populations. In Jewish history, all roads of persecution lead to messianism. We see this with the rise of messianism in the aftermath of the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively (Biale 1984:314). So too, the Khmelnytsky massacres cannot be ignored as a major influencing factor in the formulations of Sabbatianism, Chassidism and Mitnagdism. The problem with this model, of course, is how to reconcile these movements with their roots in an ignoble albeit cathartic theology of vengeance.

R. Heshil Tzoref, it seems, faced the same conundrum. He resolved it by using his mystical interpretations of Exodus 17:16 (מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַיהֹוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר), Genesis 25:26 (וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ בַּעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו) and Jeremiah 1:14 (מִצָּפוֹן֙ תִּפָּתַ֣ח הָרָעָ֔ה) as authoritative proof texts for a treacherous antinomian canonising and theologising of vengeance.

From a theological perspective, besides the obvious moral outrage, I prefer the less-popular model where more weight is placed on the influence the mystico-messianic Sabbatian movement exerted on the mystico-messianic[14] Chassidic movement. Although the persecutions were undoubtedly a major and significant factor, I argue that evidence of a more direct correspondence and intersection between later Sabbatian rabbinic personalities with their mystical literature, and the earlier Chassidic personalities with their mystical literature, is far more compelling (like R. Heshil Tzoref, whose Sefer haTzoref was in the possession of, and praised by, the Baal Shem Tov).[15]



Barnai, J., 1995, 'The Outbreak of Sabbateanism-Eastern European Factor', The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, Brill.

Biale, D., 1984, ‘Jewish Mysticism in the Sixteenth Century’, I n An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe, Edited by Paul E. Szarmach, SUNY Press, Albany, 313-329.

Citron, J., n.d., ‘Can Shabbatai Tzvi's Popularity between 1665-66 be explained by his faithfulness to Jewish Messianic tradition?’, Thesis, University of Manchester.

Davies, N., 2005, God's playground: a history of Poland, Columbia University Press, New York.

Elior, R., 2012, ‘The Origins of Hasidism’, Scripta Judaica Cracoviensis, vol. 10, 85-109.

Halpern, I., 1969, Jews and Judaism in Eastern Europe (Hebrew), Jerusalem.

Heschel, A. J., 1974, A Passion for the Truth, Secker & Warburg, London.

Liebes, Y., 2007, ‘The Sabbatian Prophecy of R. Heshil Tzoref of Vilna in the writings of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, the student of the Gaon of Vilna and the founder of the Ashkenazi settlement in Jerusalem’ (Hebrew), Kabbalah 17, Idra Press, Tel Aviv, 107-168 (1-91).

Rabinovitz, Z., 1941, ‘Al 'Sefer HaZoref' by Rabbi Yehushua Heschel Zoref’, Zion, VI, 80-84.

Rosman, M., 1982, Editor, The Stories of the Pogroms in Poland (Hebrew), Jerusalem.

Schatz Uffenheimer, R., 1968, haChasidut keMistika (Hebrew), Magnes Press, Jerusalem.

Scholem, G., 1941, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken Books, New York.

Tazbir, J., 1998, ‘Anti-Jewish Trials in Old Poland’, Scripta Hierosolymitana 38: Studies in the History of the Jews in Old Poland in Honor of Jacob Goldberg, Edited by A. Teller, Jerusalem, 233–245.

[1] This paper is adapted from a larger PhD study which I am currently undertaking, entitled ‘Sabbatian influences on the Chassidic and Mitnagdic movements: an excursion into messianic Kabbalah and its disseminators in the aftermath of Shabbatai Tzvi.’ 

[2] The year of the Baal Shem Tov’s birth is alternately given as 1698, 1700 and Heschel (1974:3) gives it as early as around 1690.

[3] According to Davies (2005:353) “The total number of Jewish casualties in the period 1648-56 has been put at 56,000; the over-all decrease in the Jewish community through death, flight, and destitution approached 100,000.”

[4] Thus Alef = 1, Bet = 2, Gimel = three, and so forth.

[5] Yehuda Liebes is one of the few scholars who postulates a direct link between Sabbatianism and Chassidism (Etkes 1996:459), a view which I subscribe to as well and deal with in my PhD dissertation.

[6] The year 1648 in the Gregorian calendar corresponds to the Hebrew year ת״ח which is 408. The Hebrew year is technically הת"ח, 5408, but the millennium letter, in this case ה, or numeral 5, is often omitted from date calculations.

[7] I notice that the Hebrew year 426 (1666) is eighteen years after 408 (1648). The number eighteen, or חי, which means “life,” is a very well-known, obvious and recognisable Jewish symbol of restoration. Perhaps this, amongst other reasons, was why Shabbatai Tzvi declared 1666 to be the apocalyptic year, the year of restoration and rebirth after the horrors beginning in 1648. Ironically, his apostasy took place in that very year.

[8] This calculation is made despite the fact that the fuller version (דר can also be spelt as דור) is not found in the biblical text.

[9] This calculation assumes a ‘full’ spelling with an extra vav in the word אוחזת, although the Torah text has it written without the vav, as אחזת. Both the numerical extrapolations from דר דר to דור ודור, and אחזת to אוחזת involve the inclusion of extra vavs.

[10] See Kav haYashar, Frankfort, 1705, Chapter 102, where its author R. Tzvi Hirsh Koidanover records this teaching which he maintains he personally heard from R. Heshil Tzoref (who in turn heard it from a “certain Mekubal (mystic).” The identity of this “certain Mekubal” is not revealed but considering the general attention to literary sources in the work, and the overwhelmingly influential Sabbatian milieu and context in which R. Heshil Tzoref operated, it may quite feasibly even allude to Shabbatai Tzvi or his ‘prophet’ R. Natan of Gaza.

[11] Here, the term Chassidim is used in its broader context referring to ‘followers’ in general as R. Heshil Tzoref (1633-1699) pre-dates the Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov (1698/1700-1760). Some Sabbatians referred to themselves as Chassidim.

[12] Without going into the details of R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov here, suffice it to say that there is a further allusion to this ‘event’ in at least one other independent source as well.

[13] Translation is mine.

[14] Some scholars like Gershom Scholem (1941:329) and his student Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer (1968:168), however, promote the idea of the Chassidic movement more as “neutralising” extreme messianism.