- Shalom Shar'abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El
Pinchas Giller's new monograph succeeds on many levels and is an important contribution to the scholarship of Jewish mysticism. It is the first focused study of R. Shalom Shar'abi, one of the most influential kabbalists of early modernity. Basing himself on Lurianic kavvanot, Shar'abi (1720–1780) developed an extremely complex and intense liturgical regimen that he promoted in the Beit El Yeshivah of Jerusalem. Sharabi's system was institutionalized in his multi-volumed siddur, which to an outsider only sporadically resembles a mainstream prayer book. Virtually every line from the Jewish liturgy is either preceded or followed by kavvanot, i.e., strings of letter combinations and permutations of Divine Names that at times continue for pages. It is to Giller's credit that he presents the principal teachings of Shar'abi in a comprehensible and accessible manner.
Giller's earlier monographs on the Tikkunei Zohar and how the Zohar was received and explicated by R. Moses Cordovero and R. Isaac Luria prepared him well for this task. As he pointed out, "[T]he Beit El kabbalists self-consciously patterned themselves after the circles that attended Isaac Luria, which in turn were patterned on the kabbalistic fellowships described in the Zohar" (p. 8). Moreover, Shar'abi was regarded by his community as the reincarnation of Luria, returning to the world to complete his teachings, which had been interrupted by his premature death at age 38.
Giller divides his presentation into nine formal chapters, as well as a brief introduction and an appendix. In the introduction, "Kabbalistic Metaphysics," he differentiates between the mainstream kabbalistic doctrine of the sefirot and Luria's new emphasis on the parzufim, i.e., "faces" whereby the Godhead is viewed anthropomorphically as embodying sets of familial relationships—such as Father and Mother, Son and Consort. In the first chapter, "Shar'abi and Beit El," Giller offers a brief biography of Shar'abi, who was born and raised in Sana, Yemen. After travelling to Baghdad and then Damascus, where he studied the Zohar and other kabbalist texts, he eventually settled in Jerusalem. There he found employment as the sexton in the recently established Beit El Yeshivah. In time Shar'abi's kabbalistic erudition became known and he married the daughter of R. Gedaliah Hayyun, Beit El's founder. Beit El and its [End Page 211] satellites continue to exist some 250 years later, thus constituting the longest standing kabbalistic institution.
What makes Giller's study so interesting and exceptional is his personal involvement with the subject. Not only do the subsequent chapters of the book display his kabbalistic erudition and mastery of the source material, as any worthy academic study should, but Giller discloses his longstanding connection with contemporary kabbalistic seminaries and prayer circles in Israel and the U.S. that employ Shar'abi's system. His personal observations of their prayer practices and his discussions with other practitioners enrich his understanding of the material, which he then conveys to the reader.
Giller's dual approach as a scholar and participant is in marked contrast to that of Gershom Scholem. In a well-known incident that Giller mentions in passing (p. 120), when Scholem first arrived in Jerusalem in 1923 at age 26, he asked Gershon Vilner, an elderly member of Beit El, to teach him Kabbalah. After some consideration Vilner agreed on the condition that Scholem not ask any questions. Scholem declined as this stipulation was unacceptable to him.
Given that the technical kavvanot are at the heart of Shar'abi's system, it is fitting that most of the book is devoted to an exploration of these kavvanot. In chapter 2 Giller traces the history of this construct in earlier Kabbalah. Chapter 3 elucidates Beit El's use of kavvanot, and Chapter 8 discusses its parallel usage in Hasidism. One is struck by a concluding assessment of Giller that "[t]he Lurianic prayer system, as conceived by the Beit El adepts, is a rite, not a meditative process" (p...