Sunday, 4 June 2023

431) The historical and ahistorical R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto


An 1853 commentary on R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, perhaps the first book to be published in Johannesburg, South Africa.


An influential Kabbalist who lived at the same time as the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) was R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746). He was born in Padua to a wealthy and cultured Italian family and was exposed to languages, including Latin, by his father. He mastered Talmud and even Kabbalah at an early age and later, went on to study secular subjects (possibly medicine) at Padua University under R. Yitzchak Chaim Cohen Cantarini. It was there that he selected a group of medical students and together they formed a Kabbalistic circle known as Chevra Mevakshei haShem (the Group of Seekers of G-d) intending to bring about “messianic manifestation in global redemption” (Sclar 2017:40). In several of his writings: “Luzzatto identified himself directly as the redeemer" (Carlebach 1987:13).

Although the practice of medicine was different in those days, the irony of religious Italian students of secular science studying Kabbalah should not be lost, coupled with the fact that their mystical teacher was clean-shaven.[1] R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s circle was later bonded together by his followers signing a contract known as a Shtar Hitkashrut (a Document of Bonds) drawn up in January 1731 (Carlebach 1987:5). 

Allegations of Sabbatianism

R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto flourished and was soon to instruct his former teachers. In a letter dated 18 Shevat 5490 (1730), he wrote to his one teacher, R. Yeshayahu Bassan, and informed him that he (R. Bassan) was a Gilgul (reincarnation) of the earlier Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva (50-135 CE). He had become aware of this during a recent mystical experience with a Maggid (angelic being) with whom he claimed he had been in communication for several years. He also considered his own soul to be a Gilgul of the biblical Moses (Sclar 2017:39-40).

Yet R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was defined by a controversy later history was soon to forget or ignore. He was accused of being a Sabbatian – a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). He began to get into trouble with the majority of Italian rabbis, who held influential positions of leadership, for his teaching of Kabbalah (which at that time was often related to Sabbatianism). They threatened him with ex-communication and accused him of heresy. They objected to the fact that he had written a Zohar Tinyana, (a new Zohar)[2] and to his claims of visitations by a Maggid

“In 1727 he declared that he had seen a maggid who revealed divine secrets to him daily… 1730 Luzzatto was obliged to sign a document which forbade him from either learning or teaching the Kabbalah.” (Danieli n.d.:100).

He kept a diary of his spiritual visitations which survives only in fragments. He also claimed he was visited by the biblical Adam, Avraham, and Moshe as well as by the King Messiah. Concerning Moshe, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto “progressed from believing himself to be an epigone of Moses, to an actual transfiguration into Moses” (Carlebach 1987:4).

R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto had another teacher, R. Binyamin haCohen Vitale who displayed a portrait of Shabbatai Tzvi in his home and openly published a Kabbalistic work on the Book of Lamentations according to the tradition of R. Natan of Gaza (the ‘prophet’ of Shabbatai Tzvi).

Because of these connections to Sabbatianism, the Sabbatian exposer R. Moshe Chagiz (1671-1751) made a poignant plea to the rabbis not to publish R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s writings. He feared that:

“[i]f his books would be printed, they would state how [the] Faithful Shepherd [i.e., Moses], Messiah, and Elijah called him 'Rabbi! Rabbi!' A new Torah would emerge from him.”[3]

Democratisation of mysticism

It can be said that R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto brought about a democratisation of mysticism. He writes:

“My associates are not people who engage in the Torah as a profession to become rabbis in Italy. They are simple people, but their souls are holy ...My approach is not that of the other rabbis of our cities, and I must lead this generation according to its needs…I leave the straw and the chaff [the exoteric Torah] for the beasts [the rabbis], and I ingest only that which is worthy of human consumption [the esoteric Torah]…Although many of our sages have not accepted this [that their primary pursuit should be the esoteric lore], I can only follow the truth.”[4]

He may have built on the model of Shabbatai Tzvi, whose teachings he was familiar with, in regard to bringing mysticism to the masses.

The excommunication

Natascia Danieli has made a study of the correspondence to and from R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto[5] and has demonstrated just:

“how widespread the Shabbatean doctrines were in Italy in the second half of the 17th century and in the first half of the 18th century” (Danieli n.d.:102).

The letters show how R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto attracted a wide range of rabbinic supporters and detractors. The Beit Din in Venice became central in the arbitration and agreed with the charges brought forward by R. Moshe Chagiz in 1729/30 that:

“Luzzatto’s works, like those of Nehemiah Ḥiyya Ḥayon, were full of Shabbatean ideas and were dangerous for the Jewish community” (Danieli n.d.:109).

In a letter written by R. Moshe Chagiz, he referred to followers of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto as “members of this evil sect,”[6] an allusion to the Sabbatian sect of Shabbatai Tzvi.

For the next few years, after signing a document that the wound not teach Kabbalah in public anymore, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto went very quiet until 1734 when he got permission to print his teacher, R. Yeshayahu Bassan’s mystical work Choker uMekubal (which is often attributed to R. Moshes Chaim Luzzatto himself, and known as Maamar haVikuach, the Discourse of Debate, as it is written in the form of a debate between a Rationalist and a Kabbalist). This sparked the second phase of the Luzzatto dispute but this time R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was defiant and refused to sign any restrictive documents. Instead, he went to Amsterdam in 1735 where he was supported by the Sefaradic community, although he still did not teach Kabbalah in public. On his way to Amsterdam, he passed through Frankfurt where R. Yakov Cohen Poper determined that:

“a small portion [of Luzzatto’s writings][7] was to be burned, the rest buried, in a manner that they would soon molder and crumble away” (Carlebach 1987:22).  

With the addition of a declaration that R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and his group would not study Kabbalah until the age of forty, R. Yakov Cohen Poper ruled that the matter had come to a close:

“It is never to be mentioned again, neither in writing nor orally, so that the scholars will cease their quarrel with one another.”[8]

The transformation and revision of the persona of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

The second phase of the Luzzatto dispute, however, did not garner as much opposition against R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto as the initial phase. R. Shimshon Morpurgo, for example, who initially was an accuser, now turned mediator.

Yet the Sabbatian question, even if attempts were made to water it down, would not go away. Joseph Dan explains that the reason why some of the rabbis adopted a Sabbatian form of ideology but rejected the messianism of Shabbatai Tzvi, was often because they believed that they were messianic figures themselves! This was the case regarding both R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and his student R. Moshe David Valle. Dan writes: [9]

“If Shabateanism is defined as a belief in the messianic mission of the person Shabetai Tsevi, Valle was not a Shabatean, because he believed that it was he himself who bore the messianic burden…However, if Shabateanism is defined as a messianic theology…then Valle, and Luzzatto with him, should be regarded as belonging to that spiritual camp” (Tishby 2008:xxi).

This way an argument can indeed be made to consider R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto to have been a Sabbatian. Dan further points out that R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto did not regard Shabbatai Tzvi as a “false messianic pretender, as a sinner, heretic, and apostate,” instead, he saw Shabbatai Tzvi as fulfilling a pivotal “traditional role in the messianic process” (Tishby 2008:xx).

Lithuanians, Chassidim and the changing perceptions

While in Amsterdam, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote his famous books like Mesilat Yesharim, Derech haShem and Daat Tevunot. During the nineteenth century, the Mitnagdic (opponents to Chassidism after the great divide of 1772)[10] took ‘ownership’ of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. This was because from around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Mussar (Ethics) branch of the Mitnagdic movement was established, emphasising the ethical works of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. These writings emerged “[f]rom the sober pietistic works which he wrote in his latter years” (Carlebach 1987:2).

But according to Dan, it was precisely because R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was banned from producing Kabbalistic works that he “hid” his mystical ideology within “philosophical discourse.” Dan remarks rather cynically:

“It seems that these ultra-Orthodox opponents of any change in Jewish tradition embraced Luzzatto despite the accusations that he was a secret adherent of Shabetai Tsevi” (Tishby 2008:xxiii).

Notwithstanding all this controversy that raged around the lifetime of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, David Sclar shows how, in a very short period of time, the brushings with Sabbatianism were forgotten. On the contrary, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto became one of the most revered of all the rabbis:

“he has been posthumously hailed as the founder of modern Hebrew literature, a precursor to Hasidism, and a pillar of the ethical mussar movement” (Sclar 2010:139).

Sclar points out the ignored irony that R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was the subject of a major heresy hunt; he had his books confiscated, even burned and was condemned by some of his generation’s most respected rabbis. Yet his books were later published at a feverish pace and he merited to be buried next to R. Akiva.

This ‘reframing’ all began in earnest about a century after his passing when he was adopted by the Lithuanian school that did not really have much connection to his Kabbalah but was intrigued by his approach to Mussar (ethics) instead, and:

“ultimately the Lithuanian image of the ‘Ramhal’ permanently removed his mystical nature from his ethical teaching…” (Sclar 2010:146).

Between 1857 and 1869 about ten printers published more than twenty editions of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s works in six different cities. Even the Chassidim lauded him. This way:

“Luzzatto came to be seen as the father of various modern Jewish movements through the selective appropriation of his personality; the apparently distinct elements of this ‘personality’ were merely his diverse intellectual contributions that survived in print. While it may be appealing to label Luzzatto’s posthumous ascendancy the ‘rehabilitation’ of a misunderstood and condemned man…this phenomenon is more accurately described as the rise of an ahistorical, multi-faceted, and ill-defined figure called ‘Ramhal’” (Sclar 2010:142).

In other words, Sclar claims that the historical figure had been replaced by an ahistorical image, primarily due to the popularisation of his writings.

“Once published, Luzzatto’s ‘spirit’ was released into the world. His ideas were free to be studied and disseminated. His legacy could potentially grow, and this once-contentious man could, in theory, service the religious development of mainstream Jewish communities; hence, Salanter’s appropriation of Mesillat yešarim and the prevalent conception of Luzzatto as an ethicist” (Sclar 2010:146).

The ban, burning of books and controversy is forgotten

The printed works fail to make any mention of the great heresy controversy:

“None of the haqdamot or haskamot…printed within seven years of his emigration from Italy, alludes to the difficulties Luzzatto faced. His rabbinic supporters neither expressed empathy for his suffering, nor joy over his arrival in Amsterdam. In fact, no implicitly historical, time-bound element is evident in any of the writings. A first-time reader who had never heard of Luzzatto would have no knowledge of Luzzatto’s life and times, and certainly would have no reason to assume that there was anything unusual about the author. The printing of these books had given official sanction to Luzzatto’s work, and retroactively, Luzzatto the man. The Luzzatto controversy had simply ceased to exist in the collective consciousness of European Jewry” (Sclar 2010:145).

The historical man had been successfully separated from the ahistorical man:

“Divorcing Luzzatto’s writings from his life helped make him one of the most important contributors to Jewish thought and religious life. His books were printed throughout Europe, often among the first books printed by a new print shop or in a new city” (Sclar 2010:148).

R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s posthumous persona attained almost mythical proportions within one hundred years of his passing. One approbation claimed that he was the Moses of the generation and that “From Moshe to Moshe, none had arisen like Moshe.” The successor of the Baal Shem Tov, R. Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezhirech, claimed that R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto died young because his generation was not worthy to receive his teachings.

“The printer of an 1834 edition of Mesillat yešarim informed readers that Luzzatto had received revelations from the prophet Elijah. Luzzatto, the printer continued, had also been the next link in the kabbalistic chain of redeemers, a successor to Isaac Luria. Although early-eighteenth-century rabbis had regarded these statements, which Luzzatto himself had made, as cause to silence Luzzatto, nineteenth-century rabbinic authorities apparently accepted their validity as they came into greater contact with Luzzatto’s writings” (Sclar 2010:150).

A South African connection

There is an interesting South African connection to this story. One of the writings that initially got R. Mosge Chaim Luzzatto into trouble with the Italian rabbis, was Choker uMekubal. Years later, in 1853, R. Aharon Moshe Friedenson (a descendent of the Maharal of Prague), wrote a commentary on that book, entitled Nishmat Shlomo Mordechai. This seem to have been the first book ever published in Johannesburg, bearing in mind that the Great Trek into the interior was only during the 1830’s. The book was so popular that a second edition appeared within a year. This illustrates quite poignantly how a total turn-about in the perception of the persona of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto had run it windy course. The once-villain who was banned, expelled and excommunicated for alleged Sabbatian heresy enjoys an after-life with a totally reconstructed popular image, not just in major rabbinic centres, in far flung places all over the world. 


The story of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto is loaded with irony. This irony is perhaps best captured in Sclar’s own words:

“Ironically, the cultural aspects that permitted Luzzatto’s ‘rehabilitation’ were the same as those that had led to his ban… Ironically, the nature of Jewish historical memory and edification allowed the writings of a once-hounded man to help maintain the status quo of mainstream rabbinic Judaism” (Sclar 20105:151).

If Sclar is correct, the implications are noteworthy.

Further Reading

Kotzk Blog: 397) Italian Chasidim, coffee, chocolates and Sabbatians


Kotzk Blog: 399) Why Did Ramchal Write Mesilas Yesharim?


Carlebach, E., 1987, ‘Redemption and Persecution in the Eyes of Moses Hayim Luzzatto and His Circle’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, vol. 54, American Academy for Jewish Research, 1-29.

Danieli, N., n.d., ‘A Study of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s letters as a source regarding the dissemination of the Shabbatean movement, between the second half of the 17th and the first half of the 18th century’, uploaded to

Sclar, D., 2010 ‘The Rise of the “Ramhal”: Printing and Traditional Jewish Historiography in the ‘After-Life’ of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’, in Ramhal: Pensiero ebraico e kabbalah tra Padova ed Eretz Israel, Edited by Gadi Luzzatto Voghera and Mauro Perani, Esedra editrice s.r.l., Padua, 139–153.

Sclar, D., 2017, ‘An Exercise in Civic Kabbalah: The Establishment of an Eruv and Its Socio-religious Context in 18th-Century Padua’, Jewish Studies Quarterly 24:1, 39–65.

Tishby, I., 2008, Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the Padua School, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation.

[1] According to Igrot Ramchal (Machon HaRamchal, Jerusalem 2001) nos. 39 and 53, he cut his beard at 14 and only re-grew it at age 24. (Some say he only trimmed his moustache not his beard). This point may seem irrelevant, but a beardless teacher of Kabbalah would be considered by many to be an anathema.

[2] He had written numerous commentaries under “maggidic influence,” including a thousand-page commentary to Ecclesiastes and a two-hundred-page book of Tikunim. These were all written “in the style and language of the Zohar” (Carlebach 1987:4,17).

[3] Simon Ginzburg, Ramchal uBenei Doro: Osef lggerot uTeudot, Tel Aviv, 1937, I,162-163, and II, 360 (Translation by Carlebach 1987:21). This work by Ginzburg was later republished (with some additions) in 2001, by Mordecai Shriqui, entitled Iggerot Ramchal.

[4] Simon Ginzburg, Ramchal uBenei Doro: Osef lggerot uTeudot, Tel Aviv, 1937, II, 240,238. (Translation by Carlebach 1987:16).

[5] Igrot Ramchal, Machon HaRamchal, Jerusalem 2001.

[6] Simon Ginzburg, Ramchal uBenei Doro: Osef lggerot uTeudot, Tel Aviv, 1937, I, 20.

[7] Square brackets are mine.

[8] Simon Ginzburg, Ramchal uBenei Doro: Osef lggerot uTeudot, Tel Aviv, 1937, II, 396.

[9] In the Introduction to Isaiah Tishby’s Messianic Mysticism (2008).

[10] This is a reference to the bans of ex-communication issued by the Mitnagdim against the Chassidim between 1772 and 1815.


  1. Did the Vilna Gaon really say that the first 10 chapters of Mesilat Yesharim had not a one extraneous word?

  2. It's usually said in the name of the Vilna Gaon but I've never seen it in writing. Perhaps someone knows the source?

  3. Why do you say Ma'amar Havikkuach/Choker Umekubbal is not by Ramchal? I have never seen this claim, and none of the editions I checked say anything like this, nor does Sclar, as far as I can tell.

  4. I did not suggest that Ramchal never wrote it but left open the possibility that it may have been authored by his teacher, R. Bassan. There seems to be some discussion over whether R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote Choker uMekubal or whether it was the work of his teacher R. Bassan (or perhaps some form of collaboration). Some refer to the work as being ‘ascribed’ to R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Evidence of this view, however, is not overwhelming.

    On the other hand, Ramchal seems to have actually received an Approbation from his teacher, R. Yeshayahu Bassan. As far as I can ascertain, the work was not printed in either's lifetime, and it remained in manuscript form. The first edition came out in 1785 in Shklov. Online source: This might complicate matters as it was only published 39 years after his passing.

    Sclar, in his Thesis entitled "Like Iron to a Magnet" (2014:179) maintains that R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto did indeed author he work. R. Yeshayahu Bassan was, however, reluctant to pen the Approbation. He wrote “Now you repay my kindness with ingratitude by forcing me to affix my name to a work that will surely find disfavor!” Finally, he reluctantly wrote that he saw nothing “in it that seemed twisted and perverted” (Sclar 2014:274).

  5. You refer to "R. Yeshayahu Bassan’s mystical work Choker uMekubal (which is often attributed to R. Moshes Chaim Luzzatto himself." You say you are just "[leaving] open the possibility that it may have been authored by his teacher." Then what is this possibility? Is the evidence of this view "not overwhelming" as you say, or totally nonexistent? I looked at Sclar's thesis, and there is no indication that such a view has ever existed.

  6. I brought Sclar's Thesis specifically to show the substantiated view that R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote Choker uMekubal. The fact that some sources refer to Choker uMekubal as "ascribed" to R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto is a less-substantiated view. As I mentioned.

    Even some auction houses and rare bookshops which often research their books well because of the high prices they want to receive, have used the phrase "ascribed to" as in: "This rare 1878 edition is a defense of the Kabbalah set in a dialogue between a philosopher and a Kabbalist attributed to Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746)."

  7. While I'm not disputing the primary authorship of R. Luzzatto to Choker uMekubal, I do see some space for perhaps some collaboration with R. Bassan his teacher. Guetta writes (Kabbalah and Rationalism in the Works of Mosheh Ḥayyim Luzzatto and some Kabbalists of his time, 269): "Luzzatto insisted on being granted permission by his teacher, Isaia Bassan, before publishing this work." This may be related to the ban, but it seems to imply that R. Bassan had some stake in the work for which his permission was required. Coupled with other inferences, I don't think it's an unusual for teacher and student to be on the same page as it were.