History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Rise of Mysticism.

We spoke of Nachnianides as a mystic. It is time that we consider this spirit and tendency, for we have now reached a new religious development in Israel, new, at least, in the prominent part it was to play in mediaeval Judaism. We have referred more than once to the two divisons, in which, in different epochs, the people were grouped — the rationalist appearing at times as Sadducee, Karaite or Alaimunist; the conservative either as Pharisee, Rabbanite, or anti-Maimunist. Now there is a third attitude of religious experience, not as frequently met, but just as legitimate — the mystic.

Mystics Good and Bad.

Mysticism may be expressed as the idea that through his emotions rather than through his reason man communes with God. This at times may be very exalting. It may indicate an exquisite expression of religion, a vivid consciousness of God, a yearning to come near to Him, coupled with a sense of the divine response to this human aspiration, a divine willingness to be nigh to His creatures. This is Mysticism at its best. On the other hand, it may lower the religious standard. Occasionally we find it drifting to fantastic and heretical extremes, fostering the most crass superstitions; mischievous, dabbling with magic; and, again, though rarely, even confusing moral distinctions. This is Mysticism at its worst.

Mysticism as such had existed in every stage of Judaism. We meet it in the Psalms, where a realization of God is in itself an exalted bliss. We meet it in the visions of the Apocrypha, in the Midrashim of the Talmud. In no age is it altogether absent, and no philosophy is entirely untinged by it — for we even discern it under the rationalism of Maimonides.


But the particular form of Mysticism that loomed into prominence around the thirteenth century is called Kabala.

The word Kabala means Tradition — a long accepted term in general use to indicate the Oral Law as distinct from the Written Law of Scripture, presumed to have been transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai and then handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. It was now used in a new sense as a mystical secret tradition, also transmitted from the remote past, but supposed to have been revealed only to a chosen few.

Kabala then was presented in the form of a mystic exposition of Scripture, particularly of such portions as more readily lend themselves to allegorical interpretation. Such were, for example, the first chapter of Genesis, the Creation, of a theme leading to all sorts of speculation, the visions of some of the Prophets, notably Ezekiel's Vision of the Chariot, that can mean so many things; the Song of Songs, that may indicate the relation between God and Israel beneath the love story. One peculiarity of Kabalistic exposition was based on the fact that the Hebrew letters are also the Hebrew numerals. Two words or sentences that chanced to be numerically identified were presumed to have subtle relation; i.e.. TNI one (unity), 1 (N) 8(n) 4 (T) makes thirteen; hence suggesting the age at which a boy should accept the law of the One God — Bar Mitzvah. This opened the door to endless new Scriptural deductions and gave free play to the imagination. A whole philosophy or theosophy (knowledge of God) could be woven from this fanciful explanation of Scripture — all sorts of fantastic beliefs could be read into it — and were.

Reaction Against Philosophy and Legalism.

The movement was launched at a period when it would strike a responsive chord in Israel; or perhaps it appearance was a response to the period's need. The philosophy of Maimonides had created a reaction; yet many who shrank from the cold rationalism of the "Guide" were equally repelled by the dry legalism of the Talmudic schools. Yearning for that element in religion that appeals to the emotions, that stirs and thrills and suggests the imminence of God, they turned to the mysticism of the Kabala as to a refuge. Indeed, we meet two parallel strands, each an escape from these two respective conditions, rationalistic and legalistic — the first and the chief in Spain, where philosophic rationalism had widest sway; the second in Germany, where rabbinic legalism prevailed. Each produced a characteristic Kabala — that of Spain, which will demand our chief consideration, was more abstract and speculative and dealt with the metaphysical side of religion; the other, the German, was more tangible and naive and dealt rather with the ceremonial side of religion, and reveled in the mystic suggestions of numbers and letters. But in later development both merged into one system.

With whom did the movement begin? As a mystic cult among a few, a mere sporadic tradition, cherished by scattered individuals, we cannot say.

But it was in the twelfth century, with the appearance of a book called Bahir (Revelation) that Kabala, from being the private doctrine of a few, became a current cult of many. This book is ascribed to one Isaac the Blind, but it was one of those books that are not products of single individuals, though single individuals may edit them. Rather let us say that this compilation was finally put forth by Azrael, of Spain, about the year 1200, reduced to a philosophic system. From Spain the movement spread, reaching to the Orient, where it found a congenial atmosphere. While it met much opposition, it also met wide endorsement from persons of prominence. Among these was Nachmanides, who fostered the movement less by his actual contribution than by his personal influence.

Influence of Mysticism.

The new cult deeply affected those who accepted it. It encouraged asceticism and worked up some of the followers into a state of ecstacy, like Saul among the prophets. But such are not unusual accompaniments of new religious movements. We noticed this in the rise of Karaism. Some Kabalists were moved to great excesses and indulged in extravagant notions that they were Messiahs sent to deliver Israel. Such enthusiasts appeared from time to time and had large followings, especially among the simple minded.

The fascination of Kabala was leading its followers more and more astray from the sober and natural interpretation of the Jewish Law and the divine will. In the thirteenth century Spain produced two great Kabalists: the first, Todros Abulafia, a man of scholarship and weight, whose influence in sowing seeds of mysticism continued for generations after he had passed away. The second Kabalistic enthusiast was Abraham Abulafia, who tried even to convert the Pope, and finally declared himself the Messiah. Had not Solomon ben Adret intervened with a warning letter to the deluded communities, his followers might have been carried to great excesses, though Adret himself was not entirely unaffected by the fascination of the Kabala. And there were others. The Spanish town of Avela produced a Kabalist and Messiah. But all these were only its advance preachers.

Moses de Leon.

It did not reach the final stage in its complete development till the appearance of Moses de Leon.

This remarkable man, for we must call him in whatever spirit we accept his writings or doings, was born in Leon in 1250. Less scholarly than the Abulafias and lacking the thorough knowledge of rabbinic law of the Tossafists, he exercised a far greater influence on Israel's future. He was, however, well read in mediaeval philosophy, in Jewish writings generally, and was particularly versed in all mystical literature — for here his bent, let us say his genius, lay. He led an easy, care-free life, yet found time to use a most prolific pen. Whatever he wrote was of a mystical character. In this spirit he treated the ritual laws, atonement and the future life. Most of these books have never been printed, though the manuscripts are, for the most part, intact.

The Zohar.

But the work that brought him lasting fame was a Kabalistic commentary on the Pentateuch, called the Zohar, a work similar to Bahir, and, like it, meaning illumination. In fact, it was largely an exposition of the former work. He presented it to the world, not as a work that he had written, but only that he had found. He ascribed it to Simon ben Jochai, one of the Tanaim; that is, one of the teachers of the Mishna. This saintly man, who flourished a century after the Temple fell, is said to have performed miracles, and his character is further idealized in this book ascribed to him. To ascribe one's work to another was not an unusual device of olden time and was not deemed necessarily discreditable. The Zohar was here presented as a divine revelation transmitted orally to Adam and through the generations until it reached Simon ben Jochai, who wrote it down. There was therefore claimed for it the recognition and veneration of a Holy Scripture; and a divine revelation it continued to be regarded by thousands of Kabalists in succeeding generations. To many it superseded the Talmud as a religious authority. This work contains the completest statement of Kabala, though not presented in an orderly system as in the Bahir. Nor is the whole work of equal merit. Among many childish notions we get flashes of genius. In it the two Kabalistic strands — Spanish and German — converge.

Methods of Kabalistic Interpretation.

Naturally we expect the reading of mystic meanings into Scripture. Did not even Maimonides yield to this temptation and the Alexandrian allegorists? But at no time perhaps was fantastic inference carried so far or allegoric interpretation expanded into so elaborate a system. It laid down four distinct kinds of Scripture interpretation: P'shat, the plain meaning, regarded as superficial; Ramez, the meaning conveyed in hints; D'rash, the more elaborate exposition; and lastly, Sod, the inner or secret that alone contained the essential truth, to which the Scripture chiefly owed its value!

The mind was supposed to enter into these modes of understanding the Bible in gradations of visions rising from the lowest plane of external knowledge to the higher realm of the inner essence until the most exalted knowledge was revealed through—love! For only to those who loved the Law and whose minds were exalted to a state of ecstasy was its full secret disclosed.

Naturally many of its interpretations are fantastic and unconvincing and some rather mar the simple grandeur of the Bible text in seeking far-fetched deductions. But regarding the work as a religious expression independent of the Scripture, though based upon it, it not undeservedly stirred its readers to religious enthusiasm.

Whatever may have been the doubts of the critical as to its supreme authority, mystics received the work with avidity and unquestionably accepted De Leon's declaration that it had reached his hands after having been secreted for a thousand years. In the year 1305 he died, just when most pressed for evidence of the genuineness of his claims. When his wife and daughter confessed that it was his own original work, its influence wavered for a moment and then continued unabated. There was so much charm in the romantic story of its origin that they refused to hear the more sober truth. How often that happens in life. Its later production is evident in its pages, since it mentions events long after the days of ben Jochai. Nevertheless Kabala had come to stay. We have shown that it supplied a legitimate want in Jewish religious life.

In the best opinion of today, though not the work of Simon ben Jochai, it is also not that of De Leon either. He at most is its editor. It is a compilation of mystic writings covering many generations.


This and the next chapter are recommended for advanced pupils, though it is presented as simply as the subject permits.

Read Claude Montefiore's "Mystic Passages in the Psalms," Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. i, in which he particularly specifies Psalms xvi, 1xiii and 1xxiii.

Age of the Zohar:—For detailed criticism of the lateness of the Zohar production, see Neubauer's article, "Bahir and Zohar," Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. iv. The chief reasons given for its production after the time assigned (second century) are:

  1. The use of vowel points, which were not introduced until the sixth century.
  2. It tells of the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders (1099).
  3. It refers to a comet that appeared in the year 1264.
  4. It quotes Gabirol's "Royal Crown."
  5. The manuscript could not have been preserved a dozen centuries in the damp Palestinian soil.

Neubauer proves that the Bahir is likewise ascribed to an earlier author, Nechanyah ben Hakanah, than its pages indicate.

Zohar and the "Disputations."—As further proof of the lateness of the Zohar, Professor W. Bacher cites the following quotation of Gentile questions and Jewish replies, no doubt suggested by disputations between Jews and Christians, in a disguised form:

First Question — You say that another sanctuary will again be built for you, but where is there in the Scriptures any mention of a third temple? Is it not expressly said of the second temple: The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former? (Haggai ii, 9.)

Second Question — You say, further, that you stand nearer God, the Supreme King, than all other nations, but ought not those who are near the King be nigh in joys and permanently free from grief, fear and oppression? You, on the contrary, live constantly in suffering and oppression, more than all other men. It is we, rather than you, who stand near the Supreme King, and you who are far from Him; therefore we are free from oppression and suffering, while you are constantly troubled and oppressed.

Third — Lastly, you assert that you abstain from forbidden kinds of food in order that you may be healthy and that health may be given to your bodies. But in reality it is we, who eat whatever we please, who are healthy and strong, while you are weak and afflicted with illness and bodily infirmities more than all other nations.

The answers were to the following effect: "As regards the first question, the two sanctuaries, which, according to Exodus XV, 17, were to be built by God himself, are not identical with the two historical temples. Both the temple of Solomon and the temple built after Babylonian exile were human handiwork, and had therefore no stability. The real sanctuaries which were promised to Israel will be God's own creation, and will descend upon the new Jerusalem, the one visible to all, the other above it, but hidden and in divine glory. For this true temple we still are waiting."

To the second question he answered: "Undoubtedly we stand nearer than all other nations to the Supreme King, for God has appointed Israel to be the heart of the world. Israel bears the same relation to the other nations as the heart does to the limbs; it is the heart alone which feels pain, suffering and oppression, while the limbs know nothing of them." [Idea taken from Jehuda Halevi.]

Then as to the third question: "Israelites, unlike the Gentiles, abstain from all unclean food, just as the tender and delicate heart, on which the welfare of all the limbs depends, only absorbs the purest elements of food, leaving all coarser nutriment for the stronger limbs."

Like the Zohar, the Book of the Law (Deutronomy), said to have been found in the reign of Josiah, was probably compiled at that time.

Theme for Discussion:—Can we separate faith and realization of God from mysticism?