People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
The demographic upheaval occasioned by the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 and the mass baptisms forced upon Portuguese Jewry five years later led to unexpected benefits. Jewish refugees made the arduous sea journey to the Ottoman Empire, dramatically increasing the Jewish populations in Saloniki (Thessaloniki), Adrianopole (Edirne), and the capital Constantinople (Istanbul). Northern Israel, recently acquired by the Ottomans, also experienced a population boom, especially the remote mountaintop village of Safed (Tsfat). The new rulers had enacted favorable tax legislation that attracted Jews working in the textile trade. Safed soon became an illustration of a remarkable pattern in Jewish history: after enduring unimaginable persecution, the ever-renewing people rebounded with a burst of incredible creativity. Like the most recent iteration of this uncanny phenomenon–the 20th-century rebirth of the State of Israel shortly after a war that destroyed fully one-third of the world Jewish population–the 16th-century explosion of Jewish scholarship in Safed emerged from the ashes of the devastated Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula.
Rabbi Chaim Vital was born in Safed in 1542 to a Spanish refugee family. His first teacher was the noted commentator Rabbi Moshe Alshich, whose tutelage was supervised by none other than the senior scholar of Safed, Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch. An able student in Talmud and halachah, Vital’s true genius was in Kabbalah, and he went on to train under Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, author of Pardes Rimonim and Tomer Devorah. The transformational moment in Vital’s life came in 1570 when Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as the Arizal) arrived in Safed to begin his own study under Rabbi Cordovero. Rabbi Vital immediately attached himself to the brilliant young Kabbalist, whose life would be tragically cut short only two years later.
The Arizal committed almost none of his teachings to writing, but Rabbi Vital assiduously collected and organized his master’s wisdom, ultimately publishing a series of books that distill the highly arcane esoterica into compelling Hebrew prose. One of his most popular works is The Gates of Holiness (Shaarei Kedushah), first published in 1734 after circulating in manuscript for well over a century. The intended readership is students just embarking on the study of Kabbalistic texts, but its introductory character and emphasis on ethical conduct expanded its appeal to more conventional students. (The 20th-century Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, for example, includes it in his required reading list). Rabbi Vital wrote The Gates of Holiness as a primer with the audacious goal of guiding readers to a level worthy of receiving Divine inspiration (ruach ha’kodesh), evident in his opening statement: “I have seen people capable of ascending, although they are few. They wish to ascend, but the way upward is hidden from them. I studied holy books in search of the path they might follow and the deeds they should perform, in order to raise their souls up to their highest source, cleaving to the Blessed One, the One who is Eternal Wholeness.”
The book is divided into four sections. The first three reinforce adherence to traditional Jewish practice with teachings from Kabbalistic sources, most notably the Zohar as taught by the Arizal. The fourth section was not printed in most editions, as it delves into theurgic Kabbalah, featuring an extended description of the combination of letters in the Tetragrammaton and other Divine Names, a study traditionally reserved for only the most advanced students of Kabbalah. My personal copy (Mishor, 2004/5) contains a redacted fourth section based on a recently discovered manuscript. An editorial footnote describes the omitted material, clearly intended to discourage amateur study: “we have not published the combinations of names here–whoever wishes to take the Name [i.e. in vain] may go ahead and purchase [another book].”
The Gates of Holiness holds pride of place in the Jewish canon as a prime example of Kabbalistic mussar literature, a classic emerging from the 16th-century circle of Safed mystics. v
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.