Jew of the Week: Rabbi Moshe Cordovero

The First Systemiser of Kabbalah

The grave of the Ramak in Tzfat, Israel

Moshe ben Yaakov Cordovero (1522-1570) was born in Tzfat, Israel to a Sephardic family from Cordoba, Spain that fled during the Expulsion of 1492. The family first settled in Portugal before Portugal, too, expelled its Jews. They eventually made it to Israel and settled in Tzfat. By the time he was twenty, young Moshe was already recognized as a great sage and rabbi, a leader of Tzfat’s rapidly-growing Jewish community, and the head of its Portuguese Yeshiva. That same year, he heard a Heavenly voice instruct him to begin the study of the Zohar, the central textbook of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah). He began studying with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (famous for composing Lecha Dodi). Within a few short years, he mastered the entire Zohar—and the rest of Kabbalah with it. In 1548 he completed his magnum opus, Pardes Rimonim, “Pomegranate Orchard”, which organized and integrated all of the vast Kabbalistic wisdom into one cohesive system. He then wrote a 16-volume commentary on the Zohar, and was soon recognized as the world’s preeminent Kabbalist. In 1550, he opened his own mystical school, and attracted rabbis from far and wide to come study with him. Among them was Rabbi Chaim Vital, and many years later, the great Arizal. The latter only arrived in Tzfat on the day that Rabbi Moshe Cordovero—immortalized as the “Ramak”, based on his initials—passed away. The Arizal would go on to create his own Kabbalistic system, which later inspired several more branches, including those of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism), and the Ramchal. However, the Ramak will always remain as the first great systemiser of Jewish mysticism. The Ramak wrote several other renowned works, and devised a new system of Jewish meditation, too. He is still ranked among the greatest Jewish mystics of all time. Today is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

The pageant of evolution [consists of] a staggeringly improbable series of events, utterly unpredictable and quite unrepeatable… human beings are an improbable and fragile entity… it fills us with amazement that human beings ever evolved at all.
– Stephen J. Gould, world-renowned evolutionary biologist

Jew of the Week: Giacomo Meyerbeer

Biggest Superstar of the 19th Century

Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864) was born near Berlin, then in the Kingdom of Prussia, to a wealthy, observant Jewish family. His father was the president of Berlin’s Jewish community and ran a large synagogue in his home. His mother received the prestigious Order of Louise from the Prussian queen, and because she was an observant Jew, got a small statue instead of the traditional cross. The Beer children received the best secular education, as well as private tutors in Jewish studies. All three sons became famous: Wilhelm Beer as an astronomer, Michael Beer as writer, and Jacob Beer as a composer. When his beloved grandfather Meyer passed away, Jacob added the name to his own, changing it to Meyerbeer. He also vowed never to abandon the faith of his fathers, while many of his friends “converted” to Christianity to be accepted in society and to take on jobs otherwise barred to them. Meyerbeer was taught music from a young age by some of the best instructors of the time. He performed his first public concert at just age nine. Meyerbeer’s early work involved writing religious music for his father’s synagogue, and his first big production was a ballet-opera called The Fisherman and the Milkman, followed by the musical God and Nature, and the opera Jephtha’s Vow. He wrote beautiful pieces for the piano, clarinet, and full orchestras, and vacillated between composing and playing music himself (which he preferred). Having faced many difficulties in his youth, Meyerbeer founded the Musical Union to support up-and-coming composers. In 1813, he was appointed Court Composer for the Grand Duke of Hesse. Several years later, he felt he had lots more to learn and moved to Italy. There he wrote some of his most renowned operas. By 1824, he had become world-famous, and his 1831 grand opera, Robert le diable, made him the equivalent of a modern-day superstar. The following year, he received the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France. In 1841, he was described as the “German Messiah” who would save the Paris Opera from its death, and shortly after also became director of music for the Prussian royal court. Not surprisingly, his success and wealth drew the ire of his colleagues, and Meyerbeer faced terrible criticism and anti-Semitism (especially from Richard Wagner, once his pupil). Meyerbeer remained graceful nonetheless, and never responded to the attacks on him. He continued to compose popular works until his last day, and has been credited with being “the most frequently performed opera composer” of the 19th century. He inspired the works of later greats like Dvořák, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky. He was also a generous philanthropist, a devoted husband and father to five children, and never broke his vow to die an observant Jew. Meyerbeer remains one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Words of the Week

One who looks for a friend without faults, will have none.
– Hasidic proverb

Jews of the Week: Israel and Nisan Bak

Israel’s First Printers – and Farmers

Page from a Zohar printed by Bak in Jerusalem

Israel Bak (1797-1874) was born in Berdichev, Ukraine to a Hasidic family of printers. He took over the business at the age of 18, and over the next seven years printed thirty books. Unfortunately, the family printing press was shut down, and over the next decade Bak unsuccessfully tried to rebuild the business. In 1831, he made aliyah and settled in Tzfat. He established a new printing press, and Jewish books began to be printed in Tzfat again for the first time since the 1600s, when the previous printing press was shut down. Meanwhile, Bak also purchased a plot of land near Mt. Meron and started the first Jewish agricultural colony. Some credit him as being the first modern Jewish farmer in Israel. It was he that inspired (former Jew of the Week) Sir Moses Montefiore to start investing in more Jewish settlement and agricultural development of the Holy Land—a seminal event upon which the later Zionist movement was built. Sadly, Bak lost everything in the Tzfat earthquake of 1837 and the Druze Revolt of 1838. He relocated with his family to Jerusalem, there establishing the holy city’s first-ever printing press. From there he printed 130 books, as well as the second Hebrew newspaper in Israel’s history, Havatzelet.

Kirya Ne’emana in 1925

After he passed away, his son Nisan Bak (1815-1889) took over the printing business. Nisan sold the press in 1883, deciding to focus all of his efforts on rebuilding Jewish life in the Holy Land. Back in 1843, he had prevented the Russians from purchasing a coveted plot of land near the Western Wall where they intended to build a church and monastery. He was able to procure vast sums of money (with the help of the Ruzhiner Rebbe) to secure the area for the Jews, and there built the illustrious Tiferet Israel Synagogue (also known as Beit Knesset Nisan Bak, and the Hurva, “Ruin”, because it was destroyed by the Arabs in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, before being rebuilt and reopened in 2010). In 1875, Bak founded one of the first modern Jewish towns in Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s walls, called Kirya Ne’emana. He built 30 homes for the Hasidic community, and distributed the remaining plots to large numbers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Persian Jews. In 1884, he co-founded (with his brother-in-law, Israel Dov Frumkin) the Ezrat Niddahim Society to stop Christian missionaries from targeting Jews. The society also established a Yemenite Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, and raised funds to support and educate Jerusalem’s impoverished.

Top left: the Hurva Synagogue in 1930; bottom left: the ruins in 1967; right: the Hurva today (photo credit: Chesdovi). Sir Moses Montefiore paid for much of the early construction. More than half of the money came from the wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family of Ezekiel Reuben. The synagogue was completed in 1864 and originally called Beit Yakov in honour of Edmond James (Yakov) de Rothschild. It was considered the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and nicknamed “the glory of the Old City”.

Words of the Week

I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.