Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism

     Kabbala.–The Bahir.–Abulafia.–Moses of Leon.–The
     Zohar.–Isaac Lurya.–Isaiah Hurwitz.–Christian
     Kabbalists.–The Chassidim.

Mysticism is the name given to the belief in direct, intuitive communion with God. All true religion has mystical elements, for all true religion holds that man can commune with God, soul with soul. In the Psalms, God is the Rock of the heart, the Portion of the cup, the Shepherd and Light, the Fountain of Life, an exceeding Joy. All this is, in a sense, mystical language. But mysticism has many dangers. It is apt to confuse vague emotionalism and even hysteria with communion with God. A further defect of mysticism is that, in its medieval forms, it tended to the multiplication of intermediate beings, or angels, which it created to supply the means for that communion with God which, in theory, the mystics asserted was direct. Finally, from being a deep-seated, emotional aspect of religion, mysticism degenerated into intellectual sport, a play with words and a juggling with symbols.

Jewish mysticism passed through all these stages. Kabbala–as mysticism was called–really means “Tradition,” and the name proves that the theory had its roots far back in the past. It has just been said that there is mysticism in the Psalms. So there is in the idea of inspiration, the prophet’s receiving a message direct from God with whom he spoke face to face. After the prophetic age, Jewish mysticism displayed itself in intense personal religiousness, as well as in love for Apocalyptic, or dream, literature, in which the sleeper could, like Daniel, feel himself lapped to rest in the bosom of God.

All the earlier literary forms of mysticism, or theosophy, made comparatively little impression on Jewish writers. But at the beginning of the thirteenth century a great development took place in the “secret" science of the Kabbala. The very period which produced the rationalism of Maimonides gave birth to the emotionalism of the Kabbala. The Kabbala was at first a protest against too much intellectualism and rigidity in religion. It reclaimed religion for the heart. A number of writers more or less dallied with the subject, and then the Kabbala took a bolder flight. Ezra, or Azriel, a teacher of Nachmanides, compiled a book called “Brilliancy” (Bahir) in the year 1240. It was at once regarded as a very ancient book. As will be seen, the same pretence of antiquity was made with regard to another famous Kabbalistic work of a later generation. Under Todros Abulafia (1234-1304) and Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), the mystical movement took a practical shape, and the Jewish masses were much excited by stories of miracles performed and of the appearance of a new Messiah.

At this moment Moses of Leon (born in Leon in about 1250, died in Arevalo in 1305) wrote the most famous Kabbalistic book of the Middle Ages. This was named, in imitation of the Bahir, “Splendor” (Zohar), and its brilliant success matched its title. Not only did this extraordinary book raise the Kabbala to the zenith of its influence, but it gave it a firm and, as it has proved, unassailable basis. Like the Bahir, the Zohar was not offered to the public on its own merits, but was announced as the work of Simon, the son of Yochai, who lived in the second century. The Zohar, it was pretended, had been concealed in a cavern in Galilee for more than a thousand years, and had now been suddenly discovered. The Zohar is, indeed, a work of genius, its spiritual beauty, its fancy, its daring imagery, its depth of devotion, ranking it among the great books of the world. Its literary style, however, is less meritorious; it is difficult and involved. As Chatterton clothed his ideas in a pseudo-archaic English, so Moses of Leon used an Aramaic idiom, which he handled clumsily and not as one to the manner born. It would not be so important to insist on the fact that the Zohar was a literary forgery, that it pretended to an antiquity it did not own, were it not that many Jews and Christians still write as though they believe that the book is as old as it was asserted to be. The defects of the Zohar are in keeping with this imposture. Absurd allegories are read into the Bible; the words of Scripture are counters in a game of distortion and combination; God himself is obscured amid a maze of mystic beings, childishly conceived and childishly named. Philosophically, the Zohar has no originality. Its doctrines of the Transmigration of the Soul, of the Creation as God’s self-revelation in the world, of the Emanation from the divine essence of semi-human, semi-divine powers, were only commonplaces of medieval theology. Its great original idea was that the revealed Word of God, the Torah, was designed for no other purpose than to effect a union between the soul of man and the soul of God.

Reinforced by this curious jumble of excellence and nonsense, the Kabbala became one of the strongest literary bonds between Jews and Christians. It is hardly to be wondered at, for the Zohar contains some ideas which are more Christian than Jewish. Christians, like Pico di Mirandola (1463-1494), under the influence of the Jewish Kabbalist Jochanan Aleman, and Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), sharer of Pico’s spirit and precursor of the improved study of the Scriptures in Europe, made the Zohar the basis of their defence of Jewish literature against the attempts of various ecclesiastical bodies to crush and destroy it.

The Kabbala did not, however, retain a high place in the realm of literature. It greatly influenced Jewish religious ceremonies, it produced saintly souls, and from such centres as Safed and Salonica sent forth men like Solomon Molcho and Sabbatai Zevi, who maintained that they were Messiahs, and could perform miracles on the strength of Kabbalistic powers. But from the literary stand-point the Kabbala was a barren inspiration. The later works of Kabbalists are a rehash of the older works. The Zohar was the bible of the Kabbalists, and the later works of the school were commentaries on this bible. The Zohar had absorbed all the earlier Kabbalistic literature, such as the “Book of Creation” (Sefer Yetsirah), the Book Raziel, the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba, and it was the final literary expression of the Kabbala.

It is, therefore, unnecessary to do more than name one or two of the more noted Kabbalists of post-Zoharistic ages. Isaac Lurya (1534-1572) was a saint, so devoid of self-conceit that he published nothing, though he flourished at the very time when the printing-press was throwing copies of the Zohar broadcast. We owe our knowledge of Lurya’s Kabbalistic ideas to the prolific writings of his disciple Chayim Vital Calabrese, who died in Damascus in 1620. Other famous Kabbalists were Isaiah Hurwitz (about 1570-1630), author of a much admired ethical work, “The Two Tables of the Covenant” (Sheloh, as it is familiarly called from the initials of its Hebrew title); Nehemiah Chayun (about 1650-1730); and the Hebrew dramatist Moses Chayim Luzzatto (1707-1747).

A more recent Kabbalistic movement, led by the founder of the new saints, or Chassidim, Israel Baalshem (about 1700-1772), was even less literary than the one just described. But the Kabbalists, medieval and modern, were meritorious writers in one field of literature. The Kabbalists and the Chassidim were the authors of some of the most exquisite prayers and meditations which the soul of the Jew has poured forth since the Psalms were completed. This redeems the later Kabbalistic literature from the altogether unfavorable verdict which would otherwise have to be passed on it.



Graetz.–III, p. 547 [565]


Graetz.–IV, 1.


A. Neubauer.–Bahir and Zohar, J.Q.R., IV, p. 357.

Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 104.


Graetz.–IV, p. 618 [657].


Graetz.–V, p. 118 [125].


Graetz.–V, 9.

Schechter.–Studies in Judaism, p. 1.


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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