Sunday 22 October 2023

448) R. Yosef Karo’s unusual mystical entries in his diary

1773 edition of Magid Meisharim by  R. Yosef Karo


R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575) is well recognised as the great codifier of Jewish law who was responsible for the Shulchan Aruch. Many are familiar with the logical and methodical nature of this legal code. For practical purposes, today, he is widely regarded as the last of the great codifiers if not the codifier par excellence. 

However, not many are aware of an extremely mystical component of his makeup. This extreme mysticism may seem rather surprising for someone so steeped in the pragmatism of legal codes. He kept a diary in which he recorded some of the mystical teachings he had acquired from an apparent spiritual or angelic being, known as a Magid (who identified as the ‘soul’ of the Mishna). These were later published in book form under the title Magid Meisharim. 

This article based extensively on the research by Professors (R.J.) Zwi Werblowsky[1] and Gershom Scholem[2] is an expansion of the earlier Kotzk Blog: 153) A MYSTICAL SIDE TO R. YOSEF KARO: and analyses additional curious messages R. Karo claimed he had received from his spiritual Magid. 

[Note: Sensitive readers may find some of the quotations in this article to be disturbing.] 

Confirmation that R. Karo is superior to R. Shlomo Alkabetz

There appears to have been some degree of scholarly friction between the two Safed Kabbalists, R. Yosef Karo and R. Shlomo Alkabets (the author of the Shabbat hymn, Lecha Dodi). The two had different views on several issues and Magid Meisharim (respectfully) records the Magid endorsing R. Karo’s opinion over that of his rival, R. Alkabetz: 

“and if you write to Shlomo [Alkabetz] my chosen one, inform him of these teachings [i.e., the criticisms of his view]’ (Magid Meisharim 10b. i).[3] 

This case concerned an argument over the significance of responding ‘Amen,’ but the two Kabbalists also differed on the Kavanot (concentrations) required whilst reciting the Shema prayer (Magid Meisharim 69a. i). In these cases, the Magid is similarly said to have communicated to R. Karo that his views were superior to those of R. Alkabetz. 

What Werblowsky (1962:101) refers to as R. Karo’s “repressed jealousy” of R. Alkabetz’s “charismatic kabbalistic authority,” is reflected in the Magid’s promise to R. Karo that the latter’s wife would give birth to a son: 

“whose heart will be more open to kabbalistic wisdom than [that of] my beloved Shlomo [Alkabetz] [שלמה בחירי], so that everyone will marvel at his [i.e., R. Karo’s son’s] wisdom [over that of R. Alkabetz]” (Magid Mesiharim ibid.). 

In fact, not only will this son of R. Karo be a master of Kabbalah, but the Magid promises that he will also “be a great rabbi and a great Talmudic…scholar,” although he will indeed specialise in Kabbalah: 

“There will be no kabbalist like him…for he will attain more kabbalistic wisdom than anyone for the last five hundred years, even ten times more than by beloved Shlomo [Alkabetz]” (Magid Meisharim ibid.). 

The common theme is that the Magid affirms that R. Karo’s son is to totally surpass the Kabbalistic knowledge of his father’s competing interlocutor R. Alkabetz. Despite the Magid’s repeated assurances that R. Karo himself would also be greater than R. Alkabetz, it seems that R. Karo, nevertheless, resigned himself to not being able to equal R. Alkabetz as a Kabbalist  − but he believed that at least his son would outrival R. Alkabetz. His hopes were therefore pinned on his unborn son. 

An agonising choice

However, included in the abovementioned Magidic promise that R. Karo’s son would outshine the competition of R. Alkabetz’s scholarship, R. Karo is presented with an agonising mystical choice. R. Karo writes about how the Magid informed him of this curious choice: 

“But know that your son will have a somewhat ugly face and bad eyes. He will be very poor, but his heart will be open to study Torah; for that reason he will not be completely blind, so that he should [still] be able study Torah….

And as for your wish [that he should have good eyes…and be rich, I am prepared to grant it to you; but know that in that case he will be dull of understanding and utterly incapable of studying Torah…

If you really want him to be beautiful and rich, say so at night at the time of prayer; but if you choose wisdom for him you need not say anything]”[4] (Magid Meisharim). 

For some reason, the Magid is said to have presented R. Yosef Karo with an active and agonising choice, or trade-off, between an “ugly face and bad eyes” over “wisdom,” in order to surpass the knowledge of R. Shlomo Alkabetz. 

Friction between R. Karo and R. Yitzchak Luria (Arizal)

R. Yitzchak Luria arrived in Safed around 1569, just three years before he passed away in 1572. Werblowsky (1962:140) describes the relatively small group that coalesced around R. Luria as making “no attempt to conceal from others their unquestioned superiority in the mystical hierarchy.” The followers of R. Luria promoted the notion that  their mysteries were profounder” and “kabbalists of other schools were essentially incapable of grasping their doctrines. 

The problem for R. Karo was that many of his followers and students were now becoming attracted to the school of his new rival, R. Luria. A confrontation between the two groups developed around the tomb of R. Shimon bar Yochai because until the arrival of R. Luria, R. Karo and his school had studied Zohar at the tomb. Now R. Luria set up his school at the tomb. 

Once again the Magid comes to the defense of R. Karo and promises him that he will also be greater than R. Luria; and that he will: 

“delve deeper into kabbalistic wisdom than the head [הרא״ש] of Meron [i.e., R. Luria]” (Magid Meisharim 61b. 4) 

R. Luria was considered the head of Meron after he commandeered the location from R Karo. According to Werblowsky (1962:142) “הרא״ש“ [the head] seems to be an acrostic for הרב אשכנזי [Rabbi Ashkenazi]. R. Luria’s family name was Ashkenazi. 

The greatness of R. Karo

Besides R. Karo’s apparent jealousy of R. Alkabetz, and R. Luria, Werblowsky notes that it is evident from the diary that R. Karo had a “profound conviction of his own greatness” (1962:119) and that he showed an “ambition to be the chief spiritual authority of Israel” (1962:126). According to the diary, the Magid identifies as the soul of the “Mishna” and tells R. Karo: 

“I am the Mishna speaking from your mouth…I shall exalt you to be a prince and nagid [leader] over the diaspora of Israel in the kingdom of Arabistan [עראביסטן]”[5] (Magid Meisharim 39a. ii). 

The Magid endorses the greatness of R. Karo and describes invisible heavenly hosts accompanying R. Karo whenever he leaves his home and they declare: 

“Who is this man whom the King delighteth to honour? He is the senior scholar of Palestine, the greatest author of Israel” (Magid Meisharim 1b-2a). 

The Magid continues to make three other important promises to R. Karo: 

1) Restoring Semicha 

“Through you I shall restore [the institution of classical rabbinic] ordination [Semicha].[6]” [See Kotzk Blog: 191) THE SANHEDRIN/SMICHA STORY – THEN AND NOW:]” (Magid Meisharim ibid.). 

2) The first to finish his book 

“I shall grant that you finish your book…[before a ‘certain’ rabbi in Krakow would finish his]” (Magid Meisharim ibid). 

This rabbi was R. Moshe Isserless (1530-1572), the Ramah, who wrote a parallel Shulchan Aruch for Askenazim corresponding to R. Karo’s work which was essentially for Sefaradim. It seems that R. Karo wanted to finish his work before the Ramah, lest he be considered ‘secondary’ to Ramah. Today, both works appear side by side in contemporary editions of the Shulchan Aruch, but Ramah is nevertheless presented in smaller print under the title “Hagah” (note). 

3) Dying as a martyr 

“and thereafter you will be burned for the holiness of my Name…and share in the resurrection of the dead” (Magid Meisharim ibid.). 

Let us now focus on this third point, the unusual desire to be burned as a martyr at the stake. It may be one of the most significant and revealing of all of R. Karo’s mystical wishes: 

A martyr's death at the stake   

R. Yosef Karo greatly admired the false Messiah Shlomo Molcho [see Kotzk Blog: 206) DAVID REUVENI AND SHLOMO MOLCHO - A MESSIANIC DUO:] who was burned at the stake at the age of 31, in Mantua Italy in 1532, after trying to get Emperor Charles to convert to Judaism. According to R. Chaim Vital, Shlomo Molcho also had a Magid as his teacher. R. Karo had envied Shlomo Molcho’s martyrdom and also wanted to die such a death. 

What comes next?

For astounding reasons that even the Magid falls silent on and that will soon become apparent R. Karo was more interested in the period of Resurrection of the Dead over the Messianic Era itself: 

“The main substance of Karo’s personal eschatology is not the sight of the Messiah, but rather his participation in the subsequent resurrection and his admission to unheard-of glory in the hereafter” (Werblowsky 1962:128). 

The Magid promises the fulfilment of R. Karo’s desire to be burned at the stake and then begins to hint at what is still to come thereafter: 

“all the saints of Paradise with the Shechina at their head will go forth to meet you and receive you with songs of praise. They will lead you before them like a bridegroom walking in front [of the bridal procession] and all will accompany you to your [marriage] canopy. I have prepared for you seven more canopies one on top of the other. And in the innermost and highest canopy seven rivers of goodly perfume flow…They will prepare for you a throne of gold…and all the saints shall accompany you and sing before you until you reach the first canopy. There they will clothe you with a second vestment of honour and similarly at every canopy so that as you arrive at the last canopy you will wear fourteen vestments of honour. 

Thereafter two of the saints that escort you will place themselves at your right and left, like the best men of a bridegroom, and they will lift you to your throne. As you begin to mount the throne they will put a fifteenth vestment of honour on the other fourteen that you already wear…Thus they will…take hold of the crown suspended [above the throne] and lower it on your head…” (Magid Meisharim ibid.). 

Then, in a description of apparent apotheosis and deification where a being is elevated to the level of the Divine[7] we read: 

“the saints will arise and escort you…and proclaim your glory and say ‘render glory to the holy son of the highest King and render glory to the image of the King” (Magid Meisharim ibid.). 

The Magid goes yet further: 

“They will sing and chant until they bring you to the place of the thirteen rivers of perfume. As you immerse yourself in the first river, they will divest you of the first of the vestments that you wear, and so with the second and third…until,  as you immerse yourself in the thirteenth [river], thirteen vestments will have been removed. Thereupon the River of Fire will flow forth and the fourteenth vestment will be removed from you and you will be clothed with a white garment” (Magid Meisharim ibid.). 

“[N]ot permitted to reveal”

Now the Magid suddenly becomes evasive and the elaborate details and descriptions presented thus far suddenly become obscure: 

“Then [the archangel] Michael, the [celestial] high-priest, will be ready to lift up your soul into the presence of God. From this point on it is not permitted to reveal anything…” (Magid Meisharim ibid.). 

Werbowsky (1962:130) cautions against any attribution of this section of Magid Meisharim to “erotic or bridal mysticism,” but he does refer us to Gershom Scholem who discusses this surprising genre of Kabbalah. 

An unusual genre of Kabbalah

Scholem (1941:225) famously maintains that sometimes “genuine Jewish thought became indissolubly mixed up with primitive mythical elements.” This was particularly the case when it came to sexual symbolism which played “an important part in the history of mysticism.” Mystical literature certainly has many such images, no matter how we are told to interpret (or not to interpret) them. 

Zoharic Kabbalists

Scholem (1941:226) notes that earlier, particularly Spanish Kabbalah, downplays the love relationship between the human soul and G-d. The earlier Kabbalists, for example, did not interpret the Song of Songs as representing a relationship between G-d and the soul and neither did this biblical work come to represent unio mystica. These early Kabbalists spoke more of the love between a father and a child and not of love between G-d and the soul, or lover and beloved. The Zohar describes the daughter receiving the kiss of the father.[8] There is, however, an exception to this rule and that is a reference in the Zohar describing Moshe “in a striking phrase that he had intercourse with the Shechina” (Scholem 1941:226).[9] This is based on a Midrash which speaks of Moshe’s sexual relationship with his wife ending before he approaches G-d  face to face.” 

Perhaps alluding to something similar, the thirteenth-century Zerachya haYevani writes: 

“It is well known that one ought to believe that when man dies full of good deeds and having lived a pious life God will love him and in the nature of this love is the reward beggaring description…We ought not search out how this reward actually will take place” (Sefer haYashar).[10] 

The possible reason for wanting martyrdom

Besides the abovementioned exception amongst the Zoharic Kabbalists where Moshe’s “marriage with the Shekhina had taken the place of earthly marriage” (Scholem 1941:227), the early Kabbalists did not often revert to this type of imagery. However, later during the sixteenth century particularly amongst the Safed Kabbalists, that imagery began to gain more purchase. R. Yosef Karo was active within this mystical environment. 

Taking all this into consideration, it seems quite likely that when the Magid Meisharim suddenly goes quiet and secretive after describing in great detail the progression through the various “marriage canopies” etc., and then suddenly stops, saying “[f]rom this point on it is not permitted to reveal anything it may be alluding a conceptualisation of some form of heavenly union. 

This may have been the reason why R. Karo’s desire was to “be burned for the holiness of my Name…and share in the resurrection of the dead” (Magid Meisharim). 

Analysis: Dealing with the disconnect

These extreme mystical ideas are enormously difficult to reconcile with R. Yosef Karo, the Mechaber, we know from the Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch. 

This ‘disconnect’ between the two faces of R. Yosef Karo as both a halakhist and a mystic, is paralleled by a similar ‘disconnect’ between the “two faces of Maimonides in his Code and in the Guide of the Perplexed” (Werblowsky 1964:127). With Maimonides, however, the ‘disconnect’ was between the rationalism of the Guide (Moreh Nevuchim) and his more mainstream worldviews expressed in the Code (Mishna Torah). 

Werblowsky (who was both an academic and a graduate of Ponevitch Yeshiva) has a profound way of reconciling the apparent ‘disconnect’ between these two faces of R. Karo: 

“Rabbinic Judaism celebrated its greatest triumph in its most outstanding halakhist not by suppressing or ousting all other forms of religious life but rather by maintaining its undisputed supremacy, in spite of the most surprising paranormal manifestations, intense charismatic life, and acute kabbalistic ‘enthusiasm’ in its greatest representative” (Werblowsky 1964:147). 

One cannot help but wonder whether the same generous standards of judgement and magnanimous acceptance afforded to the mystics would be so readily applied to the two faces of rationalists like Maimonides and Yahya Kafih.



Further Reading:






[1] Werblowsky, R.J. Z., 1962, Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic, Oxford University Press.

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

[3] Translation is essentially from Werblowsky but presented here in more modern English.

[4] The section in square brackets is preserved in some manuscripts while other versions simply state “etc.”

[5] Safed was considered to be the spiritual capital of Arabistan. Arabistan was the orient area eastwards of Palestine and Syria. It included Kurdistan, Iraq and Persia. Aleppo and Damascus, although outside of the Holy Land, still fell within the area known as Palestine. The areas of North Africa were known as the Maghreb (מַארֶגבִּים). R. Karo referred to this three-fold demarcation of Jewish settlement in Arabistan, Palestine and the Maghreb (Werblowsky 1962:126). Europe (Ashkenaz), interestingly, seems to be absent from this perspective.

[6] R. Yakov Berav, a teacher of R. Yosef Karo, had tried to reestablish the traditional form of Semicha that began when Moses ordained Joshua. The chain of this Semicha ordination, however, had been broken during the early middle ages (from around 500CE). Technically, however, Maimonides (Sanhedrin iv. II) allowed for the institution of Semicha to be reinstituted if all the rabbis living in the Holy Land united and unanimously decided to renew the Semicha. Based on this, R. Yakov Berav attempted to reestablish the Semicha, believing it may hasten the Messiah. However, he was not successful with this endeavor because he was opposed by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, R. Levi ben Chaviv. Still, R. Berav ordained his student, R. Yosef Karo who ordained others as well. But because there was no total unanimity, the Semicha movement had essentially failed (Werblowsky 1962:123-124). It seems, however, that R. Karo persisted in believing “he would succeed where Berab had failed” (Werblowsky 1962:127). Benayahu points out that R. Karo indeed made another attempt at reinstituting the Semicha, by by-passing the opposition of the Palestinian rabbis. He turned to the rabbis of the diaspora and was ‘ordained’ again (Benayahu, 1960, ‘The Revival of Ordination in Safed,’ in Yitzhak F. Baer Jubilee Volume, 248-269).

[7] Although Werblowsky (1962:129) explains that these expressions are usual Zoharic designations. This may be the case but the insinuation appears to go beyond the boundaries of normative veneration.

[8] Zohar II, 97a and 146b. There are, however, Zoharic references to the “relation of God to Himself, in the world of the Sefiroth” (Scholem 1941:227) with clear sexual imagery. Scholem speaks of: 

“the divine ‘I’ and the divine ‘You,’ [which is] the Holy One…and His Shekhinah…the ‘sacred union’ of the King and Queen…[or] the Celestial Bridegroom and the Celestial Bride…In God there is a union of the active and passive, procreation and conception, from which all mundane life and bliss are derived” (Scholem 1941:227). 

The Sefirot (spheres) are described as “offspring of mystical procreation.” Scholem adds: 

“Dimly we perceive behind…[these] mystical images the male and female gods of antiquity, anathema as they were to the pious Kabbalist” (Scholem 1941:227). 

The rabbis who opposed Kabbalah were often quick to allude to its “pagan character” (Scholem 1941:408 n.75). An example of this is the Yemenite rationalist scholar R. Yahya Kafih in his criticism of mysticism entitled ספר מלחמות השם (Tel Aviv 1931). [See also Kotzk Blog: 086) A TRADITIONAL SCHOOL OF YEMENITE RATIONALISM:]. 

Another surprising example of this extreme imagery of a ‘relationship’ between G-d and the Shechina follows: 

“On the very day King Solomon completed the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, God and His Bride were united, and Her face shone with perfect joy. Then there was joy for all, above and below. As long as the Temple stood, it served as the sacred bedchamber of God the King and His Bride, the Shekhinah. Every midnight She would enter through the place of the Holy of Holies, and She and God would celebrate their joyous union. The loving embrace of the King and His Queen assured the well-being not only of Israel, but also of the whole world. The King would come to the Queen and lie in Her arms, and all that She asked of Him he would fulfill. He placed his left arm under Her head, His right arm embraced Her, and He let Her enjoy His strength. Their pleasure in each other was indescribable. He made His home with Her and took His delight between Her breasts. They lay in a tight embrace, Her image impressed on His body like a seal imprinted upon a page, as it is written, Set me as a seal upon Your heart (S.of S. 8:6). As long as the Temple stood, the King would come down from his heavenly abode every midnight, seek out his Bride, and enjoy her in their sacred bedchamber. But when the Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah went into exile, and Bride and Groom were torn apart.”

(See Zohar 1:120b, 3:74b, 3:296a; Zohar Hadash, Midrash Eikhah, 92c-92d).  

(Schwartz, H., 2004, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press, 54). 

[9] Zohar II, 21b-22a.

[10] Rosner, F., 1982, Moses Maimonides’ Treatise on Resurrection, 77. Sefer haYashar is sometimes falsely attributed to Rabeinu Tam.


  1. Very interesting post.
    Did Rav Kairo indeed have a son as explained?

  2. I'm not sure what transpired in the end.