- Traces of Lurianic Kabbalah:Texts and their Histories
Isaac Luria (1534-72), the most influential figure of the sixteenth-century kabbalistic revival centered in Safed, was at the same time the best known and least understood figure of this important turning point in Jewish religious history. The religious practices that emanated from Safed transformed how Judaism was practiced. New rituals created in Safed and esoteric concepts buried in the Zohar became the centerpieces of Jewish religious life. Kabbalat Shabbat, hakafot on Simhat Torah, ushpizin in the sukkah, and numerous other practices that are universal today were either created in Safed or found in the Zohar and popularized by the Safed kabbalists.
At the same time, the mystical theology that animated and explained the mystical significance of these new customs and practices, which came to be known as Lurianic Kabbalah, was the preserve of a select group of elite mystics who went to great lengths to keep these teachings secret and from being disseminated. Thus, we find ourselves in a paradoxical position. On the one hand we know a great deal about the life and activities of Isaac Luria. His personal religious practices and those of his circle formed the basis for the new practices that were so widely disseminated. At the same time, we know very little about the mystical theology that Luria taught his disciples and was the mystical underpinning of these practices.
The ban on the public teaching of Lurianic Kabbalah and the copying and publication of Luria's mystical teachings made the accurate transmission of these teachings close to impossible. An illustrative example of this problem is the literary legacy of Hayyim Vital, Luria's most important [End Page 101] disciple. Vital was a graphomane who took copious notes on Luria's lectures and later organized them into longer treatises. During his lifetime he kept these writings in a locked chest and would on rare occasions allow important scholars to read some of his manuscripts for a brief period of time. The scholars who were granted this privilege would try to memorize as much as they could and immediately rush home to copy as much as they could remember. Once, when Vital was very ill and fell into a coma, Joshua Bin Nun, the richest Jew in Safed, gave Vital's brother a hefty bribe for access to Vital's trove of manuscripts. Bin Nun hired as many scribes as he could find and over the three days that Vital was in the coma managed to have six hundred pages copied. Other pieces of Luria's teachings made their way into circulation through other means. It took more than two hundred years before systematic treatises of Luria's teachings were published and made widely available. In contrast, significant portions of the writings of Moses Cordovero, the most important Safed kabbalist before Luria, were published by the end of the sixteenth century.
This aura of secrecy gave rise to the myth that Isaac Luria wrote very little and what we have of his teachings was refracted through the biases of his disciples, making it virtually impossible to know with any degree of certainty what Luria actually thought and taught. The stealthy and fragmentary nature of the early transmission of Lurianic teachings also contributed to the corruption of texts and misinterpretations. There were also teachings attributed to Luria by close disciples that seemed to contradict each other. The differing interpretations of Luria's teachings by Vital and Joseph ibn Tabul are the best-known example of these differences.
Joseph Avivi has devoted many years of scholarship to answering the basic and seemingly elusive question What did Isaac Luria teach? That is, what was Luria's theory of Kabbalah as he himself wrote and taught it? His attempt to answer this question spans three volumes and more than fifteen hundred pages. It is pursued through three lines of inquiry: First where are Luria's teachings, as he taught them and wrote about them, to be found? Second, what is the process of divine emanation that Luria taught? and finally, what is the...