The Mystics of Safed

Joseph Caro and Moses Cordovero, icons of Safed mysticism, elaborated on the teachings of the Zohar.

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Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from Jewish and Christian Mysticism: An Introduction.

A Mystic and Medium

Another major mystical figure of the early modern period was Joseph Caro who emigrated to Turkey after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. In 1536 he left for Safed in Palestine where he served as the head of a large academy. The author of a major compendium of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, Caro joined a circle of Safed mystics.

Believing himself to be the recipient of a heavenly mentor (maggid), Caro identified this maggid with the soul of the Mishnah as well as the Shekhinah [the immanent presence of God]. According to Solomon Alkabetz [another Safed kabbalist and the author of the Lecha Dodi prayer], the revelations of the maggid took the form of utterances through Caro to the circle of mystics. In a letter Alkabetz wrote:

"No sooner had we studied two tractates of the Mishnah than our Creator smote us so that we heard a voice speaking out of the mouth of the saint (Caro), may his light shine. It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. All the companions heard the voice but were unable to understand what was said. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong. We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him because of our great dread and awe. The voice began to address us saying: 'Friends, choicest of the choice, peace to you, beloved companions. Happy are you and happy those that bore you. Happy are you in this world and happy in the next that you resolve to adorn me on this night. For these many years had my head fallen with none to comfort me. I was cast down to the ground to embrace the dunghills but now you have restored the crown to its former place…Behold I am the Mishnah,the mother who chastises her children and I have come to converse with you.'"

Divine Emanations

Another important mystic of Safed was Moses Cordovero, who collected, organized and interpreted the teachings of early mystical authors. His work constitutes a systematic summary of the kabbalah up to his time, and in his most important treatise, Pardes, he outlined the Zoharic concepts of the Godhead [i.e. those from the Zohar, the masterful Spanish work of kabbalah], the sefirot [the ten divine, dynamic attributes], the celestial powers and the earthly processes. According to Cordovero, God is a transcendent being‑‑he is the First Cause with necessary being, different from the rest of creation.

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Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a widely published and eminent scholar of Judaism, and is currently Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.