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The largest body of Kabbalistic works from the pre‑Zoharic period derives from a circle of Kabbalists writing in Gerona,* a small town in Catalonia near Barcelona.
The center of the Kabbalah in Gerona was established by the disciples of Rabbi Isaac the Blind, especially two great writers: the elder Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon and his younger colleague Rabbi Azriel. In later generations these two pioneering Spanish mystics were often confused with each other (no doubt because of the similarity of their names) or with their compatriots, but thanks to the studies of [Gershom] Scholem and [Isaiah] Tishby we are now able to establish their unique tendencies and theological perspectives. For example, Ezra’s commentary to the Song of Songs has for years been attributed to the great Geronese Bible commentator and fellow Kabbalist Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides, 1195‑1270)—a recent edition of Nahmanides’ corpus still includes this commentary—but both stylistic and theological features bear the unmistakable mark of Azriel’s Kabbalah.
These two mystics and their later Geronese disciples laid the foundation for all future Kabbalistic speculation. Much of the terminology and basic ideas that prevailed in the Kabbalah during the next seven centuries was formulated in Gerona, and despite enormous metamorphoses in Kabbalistic thought, the legacy of Gerona survived intact. In their own way, the mystics of Gerona turned the heretofore cloistered and peripheral Kabbalah into an active spiritual and intellectual force within medieval Jewish culture.
That these Gerona mystics, particularly Rabbis Ezra and Azriel, wrote Kabbalistic books was not universally regarded as a positive development among other Kabbalistic esotericists. Rabbi Isaac the Blind sent an angry missive to Gerona, demanding that Kabbalistic theories be kept secret and protected from the public forum. He forbade the dissemination of exoteric compositions of Kabbalah because, as he wrote, “a book which is written cannot be hidden in a cupboard.” The dean of the Provencal Kabbalists declined an invitation to visit Gerona, sending instead his nephew, Rabbi Asher ben David, in order to instruct the circle in Gerona as to the proper modes of mystical speculation. (Rabbi Isaac the Blind’s epistle was published by Scholem in Sefer Bialik, Tel Aviv, 1934, pp. 141-162.)
This admonition concerning the nature of Kabbalistic creativity had important consequences for the younger generation of budding Geronese Kabbalists. It seems that after receiving Rabbi Isaac’s letter, the Spanish Kabbalists decided not to write Kabbalistic works any more and to hide—at least to some extent—the full meaning of their mystical worldview. Some of them, like Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, composed ethical works based on Talmudic and Midrashic homilies, totally lacking in Kabbalistic symbolism. Nahmanides inserted into his non‑Kabbalistic Bible commentary a number of esoteric passages, “according to the true path” (al pi derekh ha‑emet), which contained veiled and guarded Kabbalistic allusions that are not obvious in the least. Again, Rabbi Jacob ben Sheshet one of the important leaders of this circle, wrote an ethical treatise entitled Sefer ha‑Emunah ve‑ha‑Bittahon (Faith and Trust) and an anti‑Maimonidean critique entitled Meshiv Devarim Nekhohim (Reply of Correct Statements). In neither work does Kabbalah or Kabbalistic symbolism loom prominently.**
But the most important Kabbalistic works of this circle were written by Rabbi Azriel, probably before Rabbi Isaac’s letter ever reached Gerona. (In fact, it may well be that Rabbi Azriel’s prodigious literary output was the cause of Rabbi Isaac’s admonition.) Rabbi Azriel’s works represent an important step in the systematization of Kabbalistic symbolism and its application to various aspects of Jewish religious life. Rabbi Azriel, like other Gerona Kabbalists, was well educated in philosophy, and it is due to his mastery of that subject that many philosophical terms were incorporated into the Kabbalah. These often scholastic and unemotional terms became powerful and cherished symbols of an inner spiritual quest, laden with new layers of mystical significance. Some of the most profound and penetrating expressions of pre‑Zoharic Kabbalah are to be found in Rabbi Azriel’s harmonious blend of philosophy and mysticism as found in his commentary to Talmudic legends and his shorter thematic treatises. (Rabbi Azriel’s Perush ha-Aggadot was edited by I. Tishby and published in 1943 and reprinted in 1983.)
*On the Gerona circle, see G. Scholem, Ursprung und Anfänge, pp. 324-407; and his Kabbalah, pp. 48-52. Finally, see his Hebrew book on the subject, ha-Qabbalah be-Gerona, ed. J. Ben-Shlomo (Jerusalem, 1964).
**The relationship between mysticism and ethics in the work of the Gerona Kabbalists is presented in detail by J. Dan, Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics.
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