Moses Hayyim Luzzato

An Italian rabbi, poet and teacher of Kabbalah who claimed to be the Messiah.

Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, also known as the Ramchal, was an Italian rabbi and poet best known for his Kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) writings. Born in Padua in 1707, he died in Acre (in northern Israel) in 1747.

Raised in a wealthy family, Luzzatto was educated in Latin and other languages. At age 13, he entered the local yeshiva, where he took a special interest in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and the works of Isaac Luria, as well as Hebrew poetry.

Luzzatto composed Hebrew plays, dramatic poetry and poems modeled on biblical psalms, and this work synthesized Jewish and Italian styles. According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ The Jewish Religion, Luzzatto is “often hailed as the father of modern Hebrew literature.”

In his Kabbalistic writings, Luzzatto claimed to be the recipient of divine revelations and said he conversed with the prophet Elijah, Adam, the Patriarchs and others. Eventually, he became convinced he was the Messiah.

He explained his teachings in pure, simple Hebrew reminiscent of the language of the Mishnah. In his Kabbalistic commentary on the Torah, which he entitled “Zohar Tinyana,” he imitated the language of the Zohar, thinking that this “second Zohar” would in time take the place of the first.

Luzzatto’s messianic claims drew criticism from other Jewish leaders, however, particularly the rabbis of Venice, who pressed Luzzatto to renounce the teachings of the Kabbalah. For years, he stayed away from Kabbalah, but eventually returned to it, ultimately spurring the Venetian rabbinate to ban him and his works.

After being banned, Luzzatto moved to Amsterdam, where he published several works, including a widely read survey of religious ethics; a Talmudic and methodological treatise and the allegorical drama La-Yesharim Tehillah.

According to The Jewish Religion, Luzzatto was admired by both Hasidic Jews and their critics, the Mitangdim, and he is best known for the Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Upright), in which he provided a “step-by-step account of how the ladder of saintliness is to be scaled until the devotee attains to the holy spirit.” The Path of the Upright became “one of the most popular works of Jewish devotional literature, especially among the adherents of the Musar movement,” Jacobs writes.

In 1743, Luzzatto moved to the Land of Israel, where he died four years later.

Adapted from The Jewish Encyclopedia.

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