Sunday 10 December 2023

455) The three-pronged mystical revolution of the 16th century


Seventeenth century manuscript of Eitz Chaim by R. Chaim Vital


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Rachel Elior[1] and Professor Zvi Werblowsky[2] − examines the three-pronged mystical revolution of the sixteenth century that changed the face of much of subsequent Judaism. 

In general terms, it is true that despite the calamitous events of the fifteenth century which saw the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492: 

“[t]he majority of exiles rehabilitated themselves by pursuing a normal life, conducted according to usual mundane considerations” (Elior 2000:187). 

On the other hand, a smaller but very influential number of Jewish mystics saw the world of the sixteenth century as anything but normative. They turned to Kabbalah and mysticism as the only way to explain the trauma of the expulsion. They believed and taught that the world was on the cusp of an imminent messianic redemption. Instead of engaging with the normative world like the majority of their co-religionists which included scholars and rabbis, they sought to detach themselves from reality as they experienced what they believed were the messianic birthpangs. These circles of mystics were known as Mechashvei Kitzim (Calculators of the End). 

Development of longer-term systematic messianism 

With time, as the expectations of imminent redemption by the Mechashvei Kitzim began to wane, a new longer-term and systematic mysticism and messianism began to develop, and: 

“[b]road cosmic mystical interpretations and apocalyptic metahistorical beliefs replaced all concern for earthly expectations for imminent redemption” (Elior 2000:188). 

This process took place in three observable and distinct phases during the sixteenth century. 

Phase one: Yoseph Karo (1488-1575) 

Besides being the great Halachic codifier and author of the Shulchan Aruch, R. Yosef Karo also had a very intense and radical mystical side [see Kotzk Blog: 448) R. Yosef Karo’s unusual mystical entries in his diary]. From around 1532, he began to record mystical nightly visitations by an angelic being which he said was the Mishna talking to him. These interactions were published in his mystical diary known as Magid Meisharim. He was very influenced by the Zoharic writings concerning the Shechina who, he claimed, spoke through his mouth. However, he was soon to radically redefine the mystical conceptualisations of the Shechina. This is what he said the Shechina told him: 

“…you have undertaken to crown me tonight, for it is now several years since the crown fell from my head, I have no one to comfort me and I am cast into the dust, embracing dunghills. But now you have restored the crown to its former glory. .. therefore…be strong, resolute and joyful in my love, my Torah and my reverence; and if you could surmise the minutest part of the grief that is my lot…be strong and resolute and desist not from study…resume your studies and desist not for one instant…and through you I have been exalted tonight” (Introduction to Magid Meisharim).[3] 

This was recorded as taking place around Shavuot 1533 and witnessed by his mystical group in Turkey. In earlier mysticism, the Shechina is described as a bride awaiting her groom on Shavuot – but now she is emphasised (perhaps more in accordance with earlier tradition) as a captive awaiting redemption. Only people who study Torah, like the circle of R. Karo, can redeem her and return her crown to its former glory. The redemption depends on the actions of such men. Messianic redemption is no longer essentially for mankind. Now the first step is the redemption of the Shechina through the theurgic actions of mankind: 

“Humankind is not the object of redemption, but rather the redeeming agent who responds to the pleading of the Shekhinah for rescue from captivity as well as to her yearning for redemption” (Elior 2000:191). 

The time for passive hope and expectation for the Messiah was gone. Humans had to step in and redirect the messianic process. The voice of the Shechina proceeded to instruct R. Karo and his group to leave Turkey and journey to the Holy Land. Only there could they redeem the Shechina from her captivity among the Kelipot (husks of evil) in which she was trapped. They, together with other like-minded mystics settled in Safed. They were to leave a long lasting mystical and messianic legacy: 

“The ongoing development of Safed Kabbalah and its widespread dissemination by means of manuscripts, books, rituals and mystical interpretation, later profoundly influenced Jewish thought from the early modem period until the beginning of this century” (Elior 2000:192). 

R. Yosef Karo dramatically redefined traditional Kabbalah’s understanding of the role and place of the Shechina. In his innovation, the Shechina assumed a more independent position in the order of the Sefirot (spheres). It became an Olam or Alma de’itgalya, a new world of its own, separate from the traditional tenth Sefira of Malchut. This new model of the lower Shechina also had ten Sefirot and had to be united with the upper or supernal ten Sefirot: 

“This traditional Kabbalistic pattern is significantly modified when we learn the Maggis’s view of the divine anthropos” (Werblowsky 1962:224). 

R. Yosef Karo seemed to know that his ideas about the Shechina (also called Matronita) were novel  because he wrote: 

“[T]his mystery of the lower Matronita is very profound and it is proper to keep it hidden. For that reason, the works of all the kabbalists mention only the ten [higher] sefirot, but this mystery of the lower Matronita none would reveal…Yet all of them knew the truth of the matter” (Magid Meisharim 56b-57a). 

In his Magid Meisharim, R. Yosef Karo also writes how the Shechina complained about her degradation (Werblowsky 1962:227) and, as Elior mentioned, Israel would theurgically comfort her and raise her up by their good deeds. In other words, in R. Yosef Karo’s system (besides his technical reconstructing of the Sefirotic structure), the beginning of the messianic process lay in redeeming the Shechina before the people. This was also a revolutionary mystical and messianic concept and appears to be a unique feature “in the history of kabbalistic ideas” (Werblowsky 1962:233). 

R. Yosef Karo had frequently expressed his interest in the notion of the Shechina [see Kotzk Blog: 305) THE EARLIEST VIEWS ON THE ORIGINS OF KABBALAH:]

Phase two: Galia Raza

The second phase of this new approach to Jewish messianism was the publication of the anonymous mystical work, Galia Raza around the middle of the sixteenth century between 1552 and 1558. Drawing on the Zohar, these teachings highlighted the battle between good and evil; and also drawing on the fourteenth-century work Sefer haTmunah, spoke of seven cosmic cycles culmination in the year 5760 (2000): 

“According to the author of Galia Raza, at the end of the Jewish year 5760, that is, after the fulfillment of six cycles of 960 years, some 240 years before the end of the present sixth cycle, the order of creation will change… The end of the process represents the end of history and the ultimate victory of holiness over the Sitra Ahra [forces of evil]” (Elior 2000:193).[4] 

Such ideas would have been welcomed by many who had experienced or knew about the hardships of expulsion which had no promises of redemption or continuity. Seeing themselves as part of a unceasing cosmic plan would have resonated with the exiles and given them meaning. 

Phase three: Dissemination of Kabbalah

The third phase involved the active dissemination of mystical and Kabbalistic literature. The mystics taught that the secrets of Kabbalah must no longer be the proclivity of mystics alone but must spread to all the people. This would culminate in the final fruition of the messianic process. The mystics of this third phase drew on an earlier work from around 1300, the Tikkunei Zohar. It was claimed that this work was authored by the second-century Tanna, R. Shimon bar Yochai. The Tikkunnei Zohar made the following claim: 

“Elijah of blessed memory said to Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai…how privileged are you in that from this book of yours elevated people will be sustained, until this book is revealed to those below in the last generation in the end of days, and because of it you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants… and therefore it is explained that through the book of the Zohar they will go out of exile” (Tikkunei Zohar 23b-24a). 

This way, the secrets of the Zohar  claimed to have been written around the second century − were to be hidden away for one thousand years until the end of the thirteenth century.  They would only manifest around the time of the Messiah: 

“Their revelation at the end of the thirteenth century, and dissemination in the following period, signified the emergence of the messianic era” (Elior 2000:194). 

We should also mention that the Zohar proper was also only published for the first time in around 1290, just before Tikkunei Zohar in 1300. But for the Zohar as a whole to be an effective tool to bring the Messiah, it had to be disseminated and studied. 

This idea had already been popularised just a few years after the expulsion had taken place. R. Yehuda Hayat, published his Minhat Yehudah in 1498 and he wrote: 

“[T]he Zohar was destined to be hidden until the last generation when it shall be revealed unto man; by virtue of its students the Messiah will come, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord and that will be the reason for his coming” (Introduction to Minchat Yehuda). 

The notion concerning the efficacy of studying the Zohar as a means of speeding the arrival of the Messiah was later emphasised and promoted during the third messianic phase of the sixteenth century. The dissemination of the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts would usher in the imminent messianic era. R. Chaim Vital, a student of R. Yitzchak Luria (Arizal), exemplified this phase. He advocated this idea of the study and spreading of mystical texts in the Introduction to his Etz Chaim. But he proceeded one step further with another innovation. Mysticism had become the new Torah: 

“Kabbalah is the Torat Etz Hayim [the Torah of the Tree of Life], the new Messianic Torah of redemption. Vital stated that Halakhah, the Mishnah and the Peshat, are Torat Etz Ha-Da’at [the Torah of the Tree of Knowledge], signifying the Torah of exile. He argued that the Kabbalah is the ‘Messianic Torah and the Torah of the world to come” (Elior 2000:195). 

R. Chaim Vital writes about this in no uncertain terms: 

“Regarding the Torah in its literal sense, which is the Torah of the mundane world, it is worthless when compared to the Messianic Torah and the Torah of the world to come. . . Regarding the Mishnah, there can be no doubt that the Mishnah's literal aspects are but veils, shells and outer wrappings when compared to the hidden mysteries which are inherent and insinuated in its inner aspects [i.e. Kabbalah]” (Introduction to Eitz Chaim, p. 2). 

In the third phase, R. Chaim Vital presents what may be read as an alternative to the ‘old’ Halachic tradition. He writes: 

“The major scholars of Torah have degenerated into the heresy of denying the validity of the truth while insisting that the only meaning of Torah is the peshat. …[T]he situation is desperate since it is only by means of the Kabbalah that redemption can be brought about while to refrain from it would delay the restoration of our Temple and our Glory” (Introduction to Eitz Chaim, p. 4). 

This is an aspect of sixteenth-century theology that is often overlooked: 

“Vital's aggressive tone reflects the acute controversy which raged over the position of the Kabbalah between those who believed in its fundamental role in the eschatological process and those who held to the traditional order” (Elior 2000:196). 


During the sixteenth century, three Kabbalistic revolutions had effectively taken place. 1) R. Yosef Karo Karo, in his mystical writings, restructured the mystical persona of the Shechina, and inverted the traditional order of redemption. He emphasised the initial act of redemption of the Shechina through the theurgic actions of mankind over the traditional model involving the redemption of mankind; 2) Galia Raza transcended the borders of time and space − with a focus on time cycles, emphasising a mystical continuity and metahistory playing out in real-time; and 3) R. Chaim Vital challenged the hallowed confines of tradition − by emphasising and elevating what he called the new Messianic Torah over the Old Torah from Sinai.

By comparison to a century earlier, where we noted that after the expulsion the majority of the people, including rabbis and scholars, were adapting to a normative and traditional lifestyle and theology -  the end of the sixteenth century seems to have been a pivot point, after which the masses began expressing more of an interest in mysticism and messianism. 

Further Reading

[1] Elior, R., 2000, Breaking the Boundaries of Time and Space in Kabbalistic Apocalypticism, Brill, 187-197.

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

[3] Karo, Y., Maggid Meisharim, Jerusalem, Ora, 1960).

[4] Square brackets are mine.

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