Wine cup. Poland, ca. 1890. Silver. Among some Hasidim, it was customary for rebbes to bless silver coins and bestow them upon their followers as protective amulets. These coins, known in Yiddish as shmires (protections) were sometimes melted down into kiddush cups. As seen in this rare example, the cups often had the Hebrew inscription “zeh ha-kesef shel tsadikim” (this is the silver of the righteous) and were decorated with a shield flanked by a lion and unicorn, symbols that carried messianic meaning. (Gross Family Collection)

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Mysticism and Mystical Literature

In the period between the early thirteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century, East European acquaintance with and creativity related to Jewish mysticism reflected the impact of Jewish mystical traditions that had originated in other major centers of Jewish culture: Germany, Spain, Italy, and Safed. East European interest in mysticism began in Bohemia and moved slowly eastward until the mid-eighteenth century, at which point the center of creativity in Jewish mystical literature was the eastern part of the region under scrutiny. In Eastern Europe, a minor center of Jewish population in the first centuries of this period, Jews were more receptive to mystical traditions than Jews in other areas of Jewish settlement, and became much more creative, original, and influential at its end. This survey attempts to highlight some main topics of the diverse body of East European Jewish literature that is described in scholarship as (vaguely) mystical, flowering in the different provinces of East European Jewish settlement over six centuries.

The first testimonies of the presence of books related to Jewish mysticism in Eastern Europe appeared in the first half of the thirteenth century: books considered as heretical by some arrived in Germany from the Middle East via the “land of Russia,” as Rabbi Mosheh ben Ḥisda’i Taku (Takau) testifies. Later mystical writings came directly from Germany to Eastern Europe. Taku, the author of Ketav tamim, and Avraham ben ‘Azri’el, the author of ‘Arugat ha-bosem, lived, at least for a while, in Bohemia; their writings contain firsthand and otherwise unknown information about several important issues related to Ḥaside Ashkenaz (medieval pietism and mysticism in the Rhineland). We may assume that this esoteric material, having made its way from southern Germany to Bohemia, continued to the east, where it remained a constant ingredient in most subsequent developments relating to Jewish mysticism in the region.

Fourteenth-century evidence of the existence in Bohemia of several kinds of esoteric knowledge is more considerable. Among the manuscripts copied in Prague in this period was an interesting kabbalistic commentary on the Ashkenazic Shir ha-yiḥud. The writings of Menaḥem Shalem Eglar, Yom Tov Lipmann Mülhausen, and Avigdor Kara display an acquaintance with a broad range of kabbalistic traditions originating in Spain and Italy—and even in the Land of Israel in the case of Menaḥem Shalem, who presumably brought with him from Jerusalem philosophical writings as well as a translation of one of David ben Avraham Maimuni’s books. The rather modest writings of those authors are hardly original; rather, they reflect a passive and eclectic reception of what were thought of as respectable traditions. Some of these works combine the Ashkenazic esoteric traditions mentioned above with Kabbalah and even magical views, while others adopt much more philosophical approaches to esoteric topics.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Mosheh of Kiev wrote kabbalistic books, the most important of which was Shushan sodot (1784), a voluminous, eclectic treatise dealing mostly with interpretations of the commandments and drawing on a variety of traditions that stemmed from the Byzantine kabbalistic community. The book preserves some otherwise unknown kabbalistic traditions.

“The Secret of Ten.” Page from Shefa‘ tal, by Shabetai Sheftel ben Akiva Horowitz (Bilzorke: Mordekhai, 1807). (YIVO)

In the mid-sixteenth century, the impact of the Italian Jewish community manifested itself, as some Ashkenazic rabbis were active in northern Italy, while others traveled to that country to study and then returned to Eastern Europe. The latter was true of Matityahu Delacrut of Kraków, who spent time in Italy and wrote on Menaḥem Recanati’s Perush ‘al ha-Torah: ‘Al derekh ha-emet. According to the complaint of Mosheh Isserles in his Torat ha-‘olah, even people who were unable to study a chapter of the Bible with Rashi’s commentary were “jumping” to study Kabbalah. Still, Isserles referred to kabbalistic views in a positive manner in this book, and also wrote at least part of a lengthy commentary on the Zohar, edited by Eliyahu of Loantz and preserved in a manuscript, the first part of which was printed as Aderet Eliyahu (Jerusalem, 1998).

In the second part of the sixteenth century, the powerful center of Kabbalah in Safed became the major source for a variety of spiritual developments. The publication in Eastern Europe of kabbalistic books written in Safed transformed the Jewish spiritual landscape dramatically between the late sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Shabetai Sheftel Horowitz of Prague’s Shefa‘ tal and Yesha‘yahu Horowitz’s Shene luḥot ha-berit reflect the deep impact of Mosheh Cordovero’s kabbalistic thought, while Natan Note Spira’s Megaleh ‘amukot in the seventeenth century, and the extant fragments of the writings of Shimshon of Ostropol (d. 1648), combine earlier Ashkenazic esoteric traditions with both Lurianic Kabbalah and a variety of demonological and anti-Christian traditions. In most cases when Lurianic Kabbalah is invoked by Ashkenazic writers, it reflects the mediation of this tradition in the writings of Menaḥem Azaryah of Fano, as interpreted by Polish authors. The vast anonymous kabbalistic treatise written in Poland in the mid-seventeenth century, preserved in a unique manuscript (Oxford-Bodleiana, 1303), displays an acquaintance with a broad range of kabbalistic views.

Of special importance for understanding the dissemination of Kabbalah in Eastern Europe in the early eighteenth century is Tsevi Hirsh Koidanover’s Kav ha-yashar. An ethical-kabbalistic collection of stories, moral guidance, and customs, it reflects a deliberate effort to popularize Safedian Kabbalah by adopting a much more understandable style in Hebrew; a Yiddish translation by the author reflects a similar approach. Together with kitsurim (condensations) of Shene luḥot ha-berit, popularizing works such as Shevet musar, and pamphlets offering guidance for daily conduct in light of kabbalistic practice (hanhagot), Kav ha-yashar anticipated the popularization of Kabbalah by Hasidic masters in the vernacular, which started a generation later.

From the mid-eighteenth century, the eastern part of the region, especially Ukraine and Lithuania, took the lead both in terms of creativity in interpretation and in the application of Kabbalah, as well as with respect to its subsequent impact on the Jewish world. A significant role was played by the kloyz in Brody, in particular by such figures as the Besht’s brother-in-law, Gershon of Kitev (Kuty); Avraham Heller; Perets ben Mosheh; Mosheh Ostrer; and Ḥayim of Tsanz. Both Hasidism and the school developed by its opponents, the Misnagdim, reflect the decisive influence of Kabbalah.

The most important kabbalistic circle active in Eastern Europe from the late eighteenth century was connected to Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna. His many kabbalistic writings, basically commentaries on classic kabbalistic texts, along with those of his disciples—especially Ḥayim of Volozhin, Menaḥem Mendel of Shklov, and Yitsḥak Ḥaver—had a deep impact both in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The classic book of Kabbalah that emerged from this school, Ḥayim of Volozhin’s Nefesh ha-Ḥayim, constitutes a lucid presentation of theosophical–theurgical Kabbalah and an attempt to offer a spiritual alternative to Hasidism. Another popular book written in Eastern Europe in those years is Pinḥas Eliyahu Horowitz’s Sefer ha-berit, which includes a voluminous commentary on Ḥayim Vital’s Sha‘are kedushah, in which Horowitz integrates scientific and philosophical theories that had emerged in recent generations in Europe—invoking, for example, Kant’s critique of philosophy (as mediated by Salomon Maimon’s Giv‘at ha-moreh) in order to demonstrate the superiority of Kabbalah.

The dissemination of knowledge of Kabbalah by two members of Moses Mendelssohn’s circle in Berlin should also be mentioned. Originally from Eastern Europe, these were Salomon Maimon, in his “Ḥeshek Shelomoh” (in manuscript) and in his lengthy discussion of kabbalistic lore in his autobiography (written in German); and Yitsḥak Satanov, in his Imre binah (Satanov also saw to the printing for the first time of Yitsḥak Luria’s Sefer ‘ets ḥayim). Maimon and Satanov believed that Kabbalah could be a source for certain scientific findings.

Much more conspicuous than the speculative interpretations of Kabbalah, however, were its magical interpretations. Some books of magic were available to East European authors, especially Sefer Razi’el ha-malakh. An affinity for magic is evident not only from a variety of Hasidic discussions that emphasize the extraordinary powers of the tsadik but also from the very profession of the founder of Hasidism, the Ba‘al Shem Tov, an itinerant magician who was designated “master of the good name.” The recurrence of various versions of the Golem legend in Eastern Europe from the end of the sixteenth century, which followed techniques and stories of Ḥaside Ashkenaz, likewise reflects a special interest in this topic, unparalleled in other parts of the Jewish Diaspora.

Hasidism, the most original contribution to Jewish mysticism in Eastern Europe, constituted a psychological or anthropocentric interpretation of the main tenets of kabbalistic theosophies, combined with an unprecedented emphasis on divine immanence. Emphasizing the importance of the continuous contemplation of God, Hasidism called for an intensification of the devotional life, while nevertheless renouncing ascetic practices.

Though the spiritual center of gravity in Hasidism did not place its emphasis on Kabbalah, some Hasidic masters were accomplished kabbalists, including Ḥayim Tyrer of Tshernovits, Tsevi Hirsh of Zhidachov, his nephew Yitsḥak Yehudah Safrin of Komarno, and the latter’s son Eli‘ezer. This was also the case with respect to the twentieth century’s most important Jewish mystic, Avraham Yitsḥak ha-Kohen Kook, who left Eastern Europe for the Land of Israel, and whose mystical writings combined Kabbalah, Hasidism, and a variety of other speculative tendencies.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Avivi, Kabalat ha-Gera (Jerusalem, 1992/93); Yonah Ben-Sason, Mishnato ha-‘iyunit shel ha-Rema (Jerusalem, 1984), abstract in English; Jonathan Garb, “‘Al mekubale Prag ve-hashpa‘atam le-dorot,” Kabbalah 14 (2006): 347–338; Moshe Idel, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (Albany, N.Y., 1990), pp. 207–241; Moshe Idel, “An Anonymous Kabbalistic Commentary on Shir ha-Yihud,” in Mysticism, Magic and Kabbalah in Ashkenazi Judaism, ed. Karl Erich Grözinger and Joseph Dan, pp. 139–154 (Berlin, 1995); Moshe Idel, “On Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Koidanover’s Sefer Qav ha-yashar,” in Jüdische Kultur in Frankfurt am Main, ed. Karl E. Grözinger, pp. 123–133 (Wiesbaden, Ger., 1997); Yehuda Liebes, “Mysticism and Reality: Towards a Portrait of the Martyr and Kabbalist, R. Samson Ostropoler,” in Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus, pp. 221–255 (Cambridge, Mass., 1987); Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim (Baltimore, 1997); Mordechai Pachter, Roots of Faith and Devequt: Studies in the History of Kabbalistic Ideas (Los Angeles, 2004); Tamar Ross, “Shene perushim le-Torat ha-Tsimtsum: R. Ḥayim mi-Voloz’in ve-R. Shneor Zalman mi-Liadi,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 2 (1982): 153–169; Bracha Sack, Shomer ha-pardes: Ha-Mekubal Rabi Shabtai Sheftel Horovits mi-Prag (Be’er Sheva‘, Isr., 2002); Raphael Shuchat (Shoḥet), “Kabalat Lita’ ke-zerem ‘atsma’i be-sifrut ha-kabalah,” Kabbalah 10 (2004): 181–206; Frank Talmage (Efrayim Talmag´), “Mi-Kitve R. Avigdor Kara’ ve-R. Menaḥem Shalem,” in Hagut u-ma‘aseh: Sefer zikaron le-Shim‘on Ravidovits, ed. Avraham Greenbaum and Alfred Ivry, pp. 43–52 (Tel Aviv, 1983); Igor Tourov, “Hasidism and Christianity of the Eastern Territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: Possible Contacts and Mutual Influences,” Kabbalah 10 (2004): 73–105.