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.] 

Bar-Asher analyses Yehuda Halevi’s thought in his well-known work, the Kuzari, and he maintains that: 

“If one looks closely, evidence for the Kuzari’s significant and lasting imprint can be found throughout kabbalah: in the doctrine of the Godhead, in the theurgic conception of religious ritual, in the development of an esoteric interpretation of religious praxis…” (Bar-Asher 2023). 

If Bar-Asher is correct, he has made a significant discovery: Yehuda Halevi was not just a poet. Instead, in addition to contributing to the development of Kabbalistic thought (theosophy), he may also have inspired some of its more extreme mystical, magical and theurgical components as well. 

Literature review

The first rabbis to point out a possible connection between Yehuda Halevi and Kabbalah, were Yehuda Moscato (1530-1593) who wrote the first commentary on the Kuzari, entitled Kol Yehuda and Azariah de Rossi (1511-1578),[2] during the time of the Italian Renaissance. Both these rabbis noticed parallels between the Kuzari of Yehuda Halevi and the later Kabbalah. 

R. Yakov Emden also thought that the authors of the later Zohar had made use of Yehuda Halevi’s works.[3] 

In the mid-twentieth century, some scholars[4] claimed that, on the contrary, Yehuda Halevi was in fact influenced by earlier Kabbalah, and not the other way around. 

Shlomo Pines’ (1908-1990) view was that Yehuda Halevi himself was deeply influenced, not by Kabbalah, but by an ancient form of mysticism known as Hermeticism (from Hermes Trismegistus and which developed between around 300 BCE and 1200 CE. It included alchemy, astrology, demonology, reincarnation and theurgy as well as theosophical ideas such as G-d being both immanent and transcendent). According to Pines, Yehuda Halevi absorbed some of these hermetic ideas through Arabic writings, and he used these to theurgically expound upon the mitzvot, particularly the notion of drawing down the ruchaniyyot (“spiritual beings” or energies). 

Gershom Scholem (1897–1982), however, adopted a centrist position and claimed Yehuda Halevi did influence Kabbalah, but to a negligible degree. For Scholem, it was another form of ancient mysticism, Gnosticism, that was a major influence on Kabbalah. 

The Kuzari as a source Kabbalistic theurgy

Avishai Bar-Asher, in the most recent research on this matter, departs from previous scholarship and maintains perhaps more than anyone before, that: 

“the Kuzari might have been a source for the kabbalistic notion of theurgy, the influence of humankind on the Godhead” (2023). 

Bar-Asher focuses on Yehuda Halevi’s reasons for the korbanot (sacrificial services) which he uses as a test case. Yehuda Halevi is rather complicated because, on the one hand, he offers an exoteric (relatively rationalist) explanation for the sacrifices; and on the other hand, he alludes to an esoteric (deeply mystical) explanation as well. 

This plurality of thought allowed for later rabbis to extract different meanings depending on the degree of their mystical leanings. The Spanish Kabbalists particularly, found the mystical allusions found in the writings of Yehuda Halevi, very appealing: 

“Halevi’s esoteric explanations of commandments like the animal sacrifices and veiled references attracted Catalonian theurgical kabbalists like moths to the proverbial flame” (Bar-Asher 2023). 

This preoccupation by the Kabbalists with Yehuda Halevi and his Kuzari, continued for many generations and must have affected their thinking. Thus, according to Bar-Asher, it is “time to write Halevi (back) into the narrative of kabbalah’s formative period.” 

R. Ezra of Gerona (13th century)

One of the earliest Kabbalistic writings of this time can be found in a letter by R. Ezra of Gerona, the teacher of Nachmanides. He writes in response to questions by a certain Avraham who wanted to know about the mitzvot that appear to have no overt reasons or explanations. Ezra of Gerona refers to the writings of Yehudah Halevi and his Kuzari, particularly those that deal with the sacrifices. Ezra of Gerona makes specific mention of Yehuda Halevi and his Kuzari. He writes: 

“The reason for the sacrifice has already been explained by the Khazarian rabbi.” 

Ezra of Gerona goes into quite technical detail but suffice to say, there is much mystical and spiritual benefit to be found in the sacrifices, hidden deeply behind the seemingly innocuous words: 

עֹלַ֖ת תָּמִ֑יד הָעֲשֻׂיָה֙ בְּהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י לְרֵ֣יחַ נִיחֹ֔חַ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָֽה׃

“The regular burnt offering instituted at Mount Sinai —an offering by fire of pleasing odour to God” (Numbers 28:6). 

Ezra of Gerona (based on Yehuda Halevi and the Kuzari) explains that all kinds of spiritual energies are alluded to in this verse. 

Olah” no longer just means a mundane burned offering. Now it means “the light of the Shekhinah that ascends (olah)” to the place it originally came from. By bringing this burned offering one affects a change in the cosmic order because a restorative action has now taken place in the Godhead itself. This is theurgy in practice: By doing something relatively mundane on earth, one reaches the highest realms, not just of spirituality but indeed of Godliness, and even higher – because one can accomplish, in a sense, what G-d is unable to do without our vital input. 

Ezra of Gerona continues in this vain. “Reiach” no longer means a (pleasing) odour to G-d. Now it refers to the spiritual ruchaniyyim or forces or even beings that are released by this process.  

Ezra of Gerona summaries this process by explaining, again, in the name of Yehudah Halevi and the Kuzari, that the theurgical process of the sacrifices only takes place when “The priest would be exacting in his intention to draw forth the Will through oral and instrumental song.” In other words, complete concentration is required of the Kohen performing the sacrifice, and the accompaniment of ritual, words and song are important components also required to affect this cosmic change. 

Indeed Yehuda Halevi wrote about the difference between just any fire (required for the burned offering), which he calls the “visible, manifest fire” (al-nār al-ẓāhirah al-mašhūrah) and the “ethereal, rarified fire” (al-nār al-laṭīfah) in the context of the sacrifices. The second, higher category of “fire” is required to accomplish this cosmic process.[5] 

“[Ezra of Gerona’s] entire kabbalistic account of the Godhead and divine emanation is significantly indebted to Halevi’s conception of God and the activity of these various entities” (Bar-Asher 2023). 

Yehuda Halevi’s two levels of interpretation

The above explanation of Yehuda Halevi is, surprisingly, relatively ‘rational’ compared to his other, even deeper esoteric explanation, which he says is a “more secret and higher” reason that is reserved only for the elite. But he does not disclose this deeper meaning. Later Kabbalists offered their prospective interpretations, claiming to be providing the more “secret  explanations (for the sacrifices) that were withheld by Yehuda Halevi. 

It is interesting to note that what we may think of as esoteric, was regarded by Yehuda Halevi as quite mundane. He referred to those who believe in the cosmic effects of ritual sacrifice, as he explained above, as being on a lower level and he even called them “rebels” because they only believed in things that were “common sense”: 

“In its original context, Halevi labeled as rebels those who rely on “common sense” (qiyās) and believe that rituals of astral magic, such as ritual sacrifice, can draw down rūḥānīyāt, spiritual existents susceptible to magic.  The faithful, on the other hand, merit complete and lucid divine knowledge…” (Bar-Asher 2023). 

In Yehuda Halevi’s conceptualisation, these apparent theurgical and cosmic elements relating to the sacrifices were regarded as “common sense” but the real reasons, which are for “the faithful” go far beyond. 

Taamei haMitzvot Nusach Bet

To try and fathom the deeper and more secret explanations of the sacrifices, we turn to an anonymous Kabbalistic work entitled Taamei haMitzvot Nusach Bet, which contains references to Yehudah Halevi. It seems that this elusive “secret meaning” is very much connected to the realm of what some Kabbalists believed was the domain of spirits and spheres (sefirot): 

To quote from the work: 

“we can learn from them [about] cleaving to supernal powers. If you make a concerted effort, you will understand the essence of the sacrifices, and how the attributes and spirits suckle from the essence of the sacrifices … and how they descend down to the earth” (Taamei haMitzvot Nusach Bet). [6] 

This excerpt, explains Bar-Asher, is a reference to the idea of “mystical cleaving to supernal powers, which is the means by which astral magic operates… 

Could this be the secret reason behind the sacrifices that Yehudah Halevi alluded to as the proclivity of only the initiated? Bar-Asher writes: 

“Is it possible that he [the anonymous author of Taamei haMitzvot Nusach Bet][7] thought this was the esoteric reason Halevi refused to reveal? This is a tantalizing possibility, particularly because scholars have shown that Halevi was steeped in hermeticism and theurgic conceptions of ritual through the mediation of Arabic magic” (Bar-Asher 2023). 

Bar-Asher goes on to bring further similar examples of other Kabbalistic works that also reference Yehudah Halevi, indicating an often-ignored influence that Yehuda Halevi seems to have exerted on the Kabbalists. 


Many Kabbalists would have been exposed to the writings and insinuations of Yehuda Halevi: 

“Not mere individuals but several generations of Catalonian kabbalists had recourse to Halevi’s writings on the sacrificial rite…Later still, kabbalists were drawn to his esoteric allusions, which they interpreted using the principles of theosophical, theurgic kabbalah. These modes of interaction with Halevi’s thought, which extended continuously over a century…inform us of a shared approach toward Halevi’s thought in Catalonia” (Bar-Asher 2023). 

Many would also have sought explanations and expansions for Yehuda Halevi’s undisclosed, deeper and “secret interpretations.” This way Bar-Asher suggests that we should not regard Yehuda Halevi as simply an “amicable neighbor whom kabbalists called upon only when they needed to borrow a teaspoon or two of words.” Instead, the Kabbalists seemed to have had a long-time relationship with him and his thinking, and have often built upon his theosophy and theurgy. Bar-Asher encourages the study of further texts, particularly “anonymous kabbalistic works [and]...those in manuscript [form] that await exhaustive treatment” to find more traces of Yehuda Halevi’s hand in the formation of early Kabbalistic literature. 

It is indeed most likely that Yehuda Halevi not only contributed to medieval Kabbalah but even introduced aspects of its theurgical elements. And he did so in a masterful manner by providing an alluring foretaste of his theurgic system that spoke of cosmic results from mundane actions, and then suddenly went quiet on the “deeper” more “secret wisdom” that clearly invited further speculation by later Kabbalists

The thought of Yehuda Halevi thus emerges as an important influencing factor and component that students of Kabbalistic history seem to have largely overlooked until now.


The extent and nature of Yehuda Halevi's contribution to Kabbalah should not be lost on the reader. Bear in mind that Yehuda Halevi was introducing some very magical and theurgical concepts, way beyond the boundaries of theoretical theosophy

What did he mean by the drawing down of the "ruchaniyyot," which Bar-Asher describes as "spiritual existents susceptible to magic"? This is very different from the concept of spheres or sefirot as we understand them today.

And what did the anonymous author of Taamei haMitzvot Nusach Bet (who was probably building on Yehuda Halevi's thought) mean when he spoke about the "attributes and spirits" that "suckle from the essence of the sacrifices...and how they descend down to earth"? What entities were conceptualised as being nurtured by the sacrifices and then theurgically capitalised upon when they descended to this earthly realm?

Further Reading




[1] Bar-Asher, A., 2023, ‘The Kuzari and Early Kabbalah: Between Integration and Interpretation regarding the Secrets of the Sacrificial Rite’, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 116. issue 2, Cambridge University Press, 228 – 253. 

[2] Azaria de Rossi authored Me'or Enayim (Light of the Eyes) in which he was critical of taking Midrash and Aggadah literally. His views were strongly contested by the Maharal of Prague, in his Be'er haGolah.

[3] R. Yakov Emden, Mitpachat Sefarim (Lviv, 1870) 19 and 38.

[4] Avida, Y.L., 1938/9, Ma’amarim mi-Sefer Midrash ha-Meliẓah ha-‘Ivrit, ’Alumah, Jerusalem, 5–16;  Weinstock, I., 1969, Studies in Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism,  Mossad Harav Kook, 108, 114 n. 26 (Hebrew).

[5] See Kuzari 2.26: 96, 26; 98, 11.

[6] MS Moscow 70, fol. 59v.

[7] Square brackets are mine.

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