Tag Archives: Kabbalah

Jew of the Week: Elia Levita

The First Yiddish Novel and Hebrew Dictionary

Cover Page of a 1541 Edition of ‘Bovo-Bukh’

Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.

Words of the Week

To have a second language is to have a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

In Memory of a “Once-in-a-Millennium Scholar”

Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz (1937-2020) was born in Jerusalem to parents who had made aliyah from Eastern Europe a decade earlier. His father was completely secular, and a devoted socialist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of Communist International. Nonetheless, his father wanted his son to know what Judaism was all about, and made sure to have him tutored by a rabbi. Meanwhile, young Steinsaltz studied math and science at Hebrew University. He then took up rabbinical studies at Chabad’s Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim. After receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination), Steinsaltz tried to establish a neo-Hasidic community in the Negev, but was unsuccessful. He then became a school principal and, being just 24 years old, was the youngest principal in Israel’s history. In 1965, he embarked on a life-long journey to translate the Talmud into Modern Hebrew, along with composing a detailed commentary to explain its complexities. He finished the massive 42-volume set in 2010, after which it was translated into English, too, and shared freely online to make Talmudic learning accessible for everyone. Rabbi Steinsaltz also wrote profusely about topics that span the gamut of Judaism, including bestsellers on Kabbalah and Hasidism. Altogether, he penned over 60 books and some 200 other original texts of Jewish thought. (He even wrote an unpublished science fiction novel!) Meanwhile, Rabbi Steinsaltz helped found several yeshivas in Israel, as well as the Jewish University in Russia, with campuses in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He had spent several years in the former Soviet Union to help re-establish Jewish life there, and in 1995 was given the title of Russia’s duchovny ravin, the “spiritual head” of Russian Jewry. In 2004, a large gathering of rabbis in Israel sought to re-establish the ancient Sanhedrin. Rabbi Steinsaltz accepted the nomination to head the court, being given the title nasi, “president”. Before he suffered a stroke in 2016, he was known to regularly give classes until two in the morning. He spent time at Yale University as a scholar-in-residence, and received honourary degrees from five universities. Among his many awards is the prestigious Israel Prize. His motto was “Let my people know!” and he has been compared to a modern-day Rashi and Maimonides. Sadly, Rabbi Steinsaltz, one of the Jewish world’s most beloved public figures, passed away last Friday.

Words of the Week

The Bible is the record of when God talks to Man. The Talmud is Man talking to God.
– Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

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