Tag Archives: Kabbalah

Jew of the Week: the Alter Rebbe

Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) was born in the shtetl of Liozna in what is now Belarus. A child prodigy, he wrote his first commentary on the Torah when he was eight years old. Shortly after, he was sent to the nearby town of Lubavitch to begin advanced Talmudic studies, and was sent back home at the age of 12 as he had surpassed the knowledge of his teachers. He married at 15, and around the same time was first exposed to Kabbalah by two Bohemian refugees that settled in Liozna. They also taught him math, astronomy, and philosophy. A few years later, Rav Schneur Zalman met the Hasidic master Dov Ber, “the Maggid [Preacher] of Mezeritch”, who was himself the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. Rav Schneur Zalman became the Maggid’s devoted student, and when the latter died in 1772, was recognized as his successor. Unfortunately, there was still great opposition to the Hasidic movement at the time, most notably from the Vilna Gaon, who attempted to ban the Hasidim. Rav Schneur travelled to Vilnius in an effort to assuage the Gaon, but was refused a meeting. Despite the opposition, Hasidism flourished across Eastern Europe, and many Hasidic masters were emerging in towns large and small. Rav Schneur Zalman’s approach was unique in that he placed rationalism and thought above all else, and held by the mantras of “mind over matter” and “intelligent, not blind faith”. He therefore called his branch of Hasidism “Chabad”, based on the acronym for the Kabbalistic sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, loosely translated as Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. Rav Schneur Zalman would become known as the Alter Rebbe, the “Elder Rabbi”, the founder of Chabad. His magnum opus, known as the Tanya, is sometimes considered the “Bible of Hasidism”. The Alter Rebbe also put together a new Hasidic code of law, a prayer book, and multiple discourses on Hasidic teachings. During the Napoleonic Wars, he sided with the Czar, despite the fact that the Russians oppressed the Jews while Napoleon brought emancipation to them. He believed that while the Russians threatened the Jewish body, Napoleon threatened the Jewish soul, as his “emancipation” would lead to mass assimilation of Jews in Europe. History would prove him right. In 1812, the Alter Rebbe fled Napoleon’s approaching armies, and succumbed to an illness on the difficult journey. His disciples split among two potential successors: some supported Aharon Horowitz, based in the town of Strashelye, while others supported Rav Schneur Zalman’s son, Dov Ber, based in Lubavitch. Over time, the Strashelye branch dissipated, leaving the Lubavitch stream. This is one reason why the movement is still known as Chabad-Lubavitch. The organization has become the most successful Jewish outreach group in history, mainly due to the work of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Today, there is a Chabad House on every continent (except Antarctica, for now), with over 1300 Chabad-run institutions around the world. Yesterday, the 18th of Elul, was the Alter Rebbe’s birthday.

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Words of the Week

A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.
– the Alter Rebbe

In a letter to his grandson, dated 24 Tevet 5583 (December 1812, shortly before his passing), the Alter Rebbe wrote: “I no longer see a table, a chair, a lamp… only the letters of the Divine Utterances.” As we read in the Torah, God “spoke” the world into existence, and all material things are only a reflection of their spiritual inner essence, composed of a combination of Hebrew letters, the building blocks of Creation. Like other great Kabbalists before and after him, the Alter Rebbe saw through the illusory material world, and beheld the spiritual “code” within, reminiscent of this famous scene from ‘The Matrix’.

Jew of the Week: the Arizal

The Arizal’s Grave in Tzfat

Itzchak ben Shlomo Luria (1534-1572) was born in Jerusalem to an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother. His father passed away when he was still a child, forcing his mother to move back to Egypt. There, he was raised by his wealthy uncle and placed under the tutelage of Cairo’s greatest rabbis. He married at the age of 15, and continued his religious studies while also entering the business world. (Several business documents signed by his hand have been found in the famous Cairo Genizah, along with a few letters.) At 22, he was introduced to the study of Jewish mysticism and began learning the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah. Some time later, he left his home and spent seven years meditating in a small cottage along the Nile River. Rabbi Luria would return home only on Shabbat, and spoke only in Hebrew, the holy tongue. During this time, he conceived of an entirely new system and interpretation of Kabbalah. Around 1569, he left Egypt for Tzfat, then the capital of Jewish mysticism, and home of the greatest Kabbalists of the time. Shortly after his arrival, the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, passed away, and Rabbi Luria quickly filled the void. He was soon known as HaAri HaKodesh, “the Holy Lion”. Although he did not gain a very large following (focusing on a small group of astute disciples) and although he wrote very little himself, Rabbi Luria’s teachings would revolutionize Judaism. His students diligently recorded his teachings. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, together with his son Shmuel Vital, laid out the entire Lurianic system in a series of texts called the “Eight Gates”. These works describe the origins and anatomy of the cosmos as well as the dynamics of souls and spiritual forces. They provide deeper explanations for the narratives of the Torah and for the Jewish holidays, and are filled with gematria (Jewish numerology), kavvanot (meditations), and tikkunim(spiritual rectifications). Among the most famous of the treatises is Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnations”, the standard Jewish textbook on transmigration of souls. Rabbi Luria’s teachings spread rapidly all over the world, and went on to completely transform Judaism. They would give rise to the Hasidic movement, while at the same time providing the fuel for the first sparks of Zionism. Rabbi Luria’s teachings were even translated into Latin and impacted Christian mysticism and the European Renaissance. His prayer style (Nusach haAri) became the standard for all Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Hasidic communities. His own life was mysteriously cut short at age 38, just two years after arriving in Tzfat. He has since become more commonly known as the Arizal, “the Lion of Blessed Memory”. He was scrupulously observant, avoiding consuming meat and dairy on the same day, and immersing in a mikveh regularly, even in the cold of winter. He studied and meditated to the point of sweating, well past midnight, and was up again before sunrise. He avoided harming anything, even the tiniest of flies. The Arizal was famous for being able to peer into people’s souls. It is said he could speak to angels, and understood the speech of animals and trees. His impact on Judaism, and the world at large, is immeasurable. The Arizal’s hillula (or yahrzeit) is on Tuesday.

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Words of the Week

It is incumbent for a person to take upon themselves each day the mitzvah of “love your fellow as yourself”.
– Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal

The classic Kabbalistic “Tree of Life” (left) is often associated with the Arizal. Though he did not originate the diagram, his teachings explained it in an entirely new and profound way. The diagram at right was produced by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, who translated some of the Arizal’s teachings together with passages from the Zohar into the Latin ‘Kabbalah Denudata’, once very popular in Christian Europe.