Tag Archives: Tzfat

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

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.

Jews of the Week: Rav Saragossi and the Radbaz

Two Inspiring Sages

Tomb of Rabbi Yosef Saragossi in Ein Zeitim, Israel

Yosef Saragossi (1460-1507) was born to a religious Sephardic family, either in Saragossa, Spain, or in Syracuse, Sicily. He became a respected rabbi at a young age. Around the time of the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, Rav Saragossi settled in Tzfat. He discovered a tiny community of just 300 poorly-educated Jews, with not a single full-time rabbi among them. Rav Saragossi revived the three synagogues in the city and founded new schools, reinvigorating Jewish life. His yeshiva soon attracted students from far and wide. Within a century, Tzfat was a major centre of Jewish learning, and the capital of Jewish mysticism. There, Rabbi Yosef Karo would produce the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish law, and there the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) revealed his Kabbalistic system, forever revolutionizing Judaism. Rav Saragossi was beloved not only by Tzfat’s Jews, but by its Muslim residents, too. In fact, the Muslim governor at the time paid two-thirds of Rav Yosef’s salary just to keep him from leaving. Rav Saragossi’s tomb remains an important pilgrimage site, and is known as a place of miracles. Because of one such miracle involving 500 white hens, he has been called Tzadik haLavan, “the White Saint”.

One of Rav Saragossi’s foremost students was David ben Shlomo ibn Abi Zimra (c. 1479-1589). He, too, was born in Spain, and was exiled around the time of his bar mitzvah. His family settled in Tzfat, and the young David studied in Rav Saragossi’s yeshiva. Becoming a renowned rabbi of his own (later known by his initials, Radbaz, as is common among Jewish sages), he moved to Egypt and became a member of its beit din, the Jewish court. He would soon be appointed Hakham Bashi, Egypt’s chief rabbi. Meanwhile, the Radbaz made some good investments, and became exceedingly wealthy. He built a new yeshiva in Cairo, and it was there that a young Isaac Luria, the Arizal, would get his start. After serving as Chief Rabbi for nearly forty years, writing a number of important books, and penning over 3000 responsa, the Radbaz retired at age 90. He left most of his wealth for the poor, then returned to the Holy Land. Although he wished to settle in Jerusalem, the Ottomans made it difficult for Jews to live there, so the Radbaz returned to Tzfat. He was immediately placed on the highest beit din, alongside Rav Yosef Karo. The Radbaz merited to live many more years, inspiring a new generation of rabbis, including the great Rabbi Chaim Vital. He was over 100 years old when he passed away.

Words of the Week

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
– George Eliot