A Powerful Discussion On The Chain Of Kabbalah And How Everything Rests In Emunat Chakhamim

This article addresses those who presently seek to attack Kabbalah, often invoking the authority of the Rambam

These people aim to establish a lineage of tradition that essentially asserts that anyone embracing Kabbalah is, at best, holding heterodox beliefs, and at worst, bordering on heresy.

My proposition is quite straightforward:

Provide me with an uninterrupted chain of tradition of the past 1.500 years (or even 1.000 years)

Interpreting the work of the Rambam and extracting from it whatever suits their perspective does not constitute a valid lineage. Much like reading a manual on quail butchery doesn’t magically confer a legitimate tradition of quail slaughter.

Before resorting to the argument that such a tradition validates branding numerous revered figures in Judaism, including Maran Yosef Karo, as heretics (chas v’shalom), these questioners would have to substantiate the authenticity of their lineage. Even the Dor Deah movement in Yemen, arguably the last bastion against Kabbalah, emerged only as a recent development.

This was after Kabbalah gained widespread acceptance in Yemen, leading to the creation of two liturgical practices – the Shmai (Nusach Ari) and Baladi (a Yemenite liturgy retaining its original form while incorporating Kabbalistic elements like Lekha Dodi and Brikh Shmi) in the 17th century. Dor Deah surfaced in the late 19th century, striving to be a revivalist rationalist movement against Kabbalah.

Nonetheless, it lacked any real argument to substantiate its claims.

As we know the bulk of Kabbalah is based on the Zohar, which is an incredibly deep and terse work. Most of the people simply learn the Arizal’s Kabbalah which elucidates it. Fewer people learn the Kavanot of Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, fewer even the writings of the Ramban, and fewer even the writings of R’ Avraham Abulafia (but this is just my impression, I’m willing to be corrected).

The earliest references to the existence of the Zohar can be traced back to numerous works by the Rishonim, who lived during the initial decades of the sixth millennium (1240-1290 CE). These writings feature quotations from parts of the Zohar attributed to “the midrash,” “Midrash Yerushalmi,” simply “Yerushalmi,” or “Midrash R. Shimon bar Yoḥai.

R. Eliyahu del Medigo, in his work “Bekḥinat HaDath,” authored in the year 5251 (1491 CE), critiques the Zohar, asserting that “the book has only been publicly known in our nation for close to 300 years.” Even according to this statement, the Zohar had already become known by the final century of the fifth millennium (around 1200 CE).

Many other objections and criticisms have been raised throughout the ages, but we will attempt to prove the validity of the Zohar and Kabbalah in general.

Broken chain of Kabbalah is difficult to trace

Continuing this line of thought, what truly establishes the authenticity of a tradition?

Can someone who aligns with Shabtai Tzvi (in a non-religious sense, obviously) then assert that if an uninterrupted lineage were presented, their tradition would gain validation?

Could an individual who demonstrates an unbroken lineage tracing back to R’ Yosi HaGilili demand acknowledgment for their practice of consuming fowl and milk together?

Clearly this is an untenable proposition, because these perspectives were dismissed by the sages and real Tzadikim of the past, which underpins the principle of Emunat Chakhamim.

Similarly, considering that revered luminaries in Judaism such as Maran Yosef Karo, the Rema, the Magen Avraham, the Shach, the Taz, the Gaon of Vilna the Baal Shem Tov, the Chida, and others acknowledged the authenticity of the Kabbalah tradition, can an individual who presents a lineage stretching back to, let’s say, the Rambam, while rejecting Kabbalah, argue that it constitutes a valid tradition?

I’m quite confident this is an opinion that was rejected.

Yet, as Maran Yosef Karo documents emphatically in his Magid Mesharim:

Upon your [Maran Yosef Karo’s] passing, the esteemed Rambam will emerge to welcome you, for having found resolutions to the difficulties in his Code of Laws. He belongs among the righteous, contrary to the claims of some sages who suggested he had been reincarnated as a worm. Let it be clear that this assertion was not accurate; it was a decree stemming from his own ill-phrased words. However, his pursuit of Torah knowledge shielded him, as did his virtuous actions, in which he excelled. He never underwent reincarnation as a worm. While he did experience some form of reincarnation, upon departing that life, he ascended to the realm of the Tzadikim.

Rav Yaakov Moshe Hillel has made a truly significant contribution to the world of Torah. He has succeeded in making the important work “Shomer Emunim” accessible once again, after years of being largely out of reach.

The author of “Shomer Emunim” is Rav Yosef Irgas, born in 1684, who rose to prominence as the foremost disciple of Benyamin Marjiv. His lineage in the realm of Kabbalah can be traced back to Rav Marjiv, who was instructed by Rav Moshe Zacutto, a student of Rav Benyamin HaLevy, himself a disciple of the Ari and Rabbi Chaim Vital.

During a time when the Jewish community was still grappling with the aftermath of the Shabbtai Tzvi debacle, Kabbalah came under considerable Rabbinic attack. Accusations of potential idolatrous elements were fiercely raised. In response, Rav Irgas undertook the task not only of advocating for the study of Kabbalah, but also of composing an authoritative defense of this mystical tradition, which culminated in his work, “Shomer Emunim.

This book adopts a dialogic format between two characters: Shealtiel, who persistently questions the authenticity of Kabbalah and raises seemingly valid objections against its teachings, and Yehoyada, who adeptly addresses these objections, illustrating that Kabbalah maintains a harmonious alignment with the bedrock principles of Jewish faith, the Tanach and Talmud.

In my personal opinion, this work is an invaluable gem that should adorn the bookshelves of every devoted student of Torah. This sentiment holds particular relevance in contemporary times, given the proliferation of misguided idiocies like “Tohar HaYichud” (may this book be erased from history). I call it as such due to the sheer perplexity of a notion that implies our revered Torah authorities embraced heterodoxy (chas v’shalom again).

With the exception of the Rambam (and even this is subject to contention from numerous other Rishonim), our rich tradition uniformly encompasses Kabbalah.

A deeper exploration into the unbroken chain of Kabbalah shall be a topic for another occasion. Rav Irgas provides a comprehensive exposition in this very work, specifically in sections 12 and 13. Rav Shimon Algassi elaborates on this theme in his commentary on the Rambam’s 13 principles, and Rav Porush presents an eloquent elucidation in his introduction to “Sulam HaAliyah.”

There is not a single question that can be raised against Kabbalah which has not been answered by Rav Irgas in this great book.

Many might be acquainted with the more traditional edition of “Sepher Eilimah” by Rav Moshe Kordovero (the Ramak). This work held significant importance as a foundational piece for comprehending his Kabbalistic teachings. Some are also aware that the manuscript had not been fully published in its entirety, with a fraction of the text, slightly less than a third, having been previously available in print.

Enter the commendable team at Nezer Shraga (an old online book store, not online anymore), who have changed this. They had presented the entire book in a notably clear block font. This is indeed an imposing tome, measuring 27cm in length, 19cm in width, and 6cm in thickness, spanning an impressive 902 pages. Its dimensions and scope easily surpass those of the Ramak’s other renowned Kabbalistic work, the “Pardes Rimonim.”

In terms of structure and organization, the book shares a similarity with its sibling, displaying the Ramak’s gift for systematic arrangement. Yet, it is fundamentally distinct. While the “Pardes” predominantly aimed at synthesizing the various preexisting schools of Kabbalah, this sefer focuses primarily on the Zohar, the concept of Tzimtzum (Divine contraction), and their intersection with spiritual practice (Avodah).

In essence, it could be said to parallel the later work Etz Chaim by Rabbi Chaim Vital.

The Ramak vigorously advocates for the study of Kabbalah, strategically aligning diverse aspects of Kabbalistic theology with core tenets of the Jewish faith. He then dives directly into expounding the creation of the Sephirot and the multilayered worlds they constitute.

This text is of immense significance in that it illuminates, more distinctly than any other source, the bridge connecting the later “Lurianic” School of Kabbalah with its antecedents.

While it’s true that the Ari indeed experienced revelations from Eliyahu HaNavi and thus introduced many innovative concepts, it becomes increasingly evident that these novelties manifest primarily in two essential forms.

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The first distinctive capability was the aptitude to achieve an unprecedented amalgamation of various systems. The second proficiency lay in the capacity to rectify sundry textual intricacies and apparent contradictions in a manner that was intellectually sincere and internally coherent.

Adding to the value, this sefer includes, as an appendix, the “Sefer Tomer Devorah,” meticulously revised and expanded from the original manuscripts penned by the Ramak.

Proof of the authenticity of the Zohar

For those familiar with this blog’s content or who have perused my, let’s say, fervent defenses of Kabbalah agains “Da’as Torah” (the people who object it with supposedly “rational” grounds), the name Rabbi Mendel Kasher might ring a bell. Rabbi Mendel Kasher penned an exceptional essay delving into the origins of the Zohar. In this work, he embarked on an investigation into the assertions made by numerous academics, including Gershom Scholem, aiming to uncover the truth.

In my personal assessment, Rabbi Kasher adopts a highly circumspect and innovative approach in scrutinizing the evidence, culminating in a quite robust hypothesis regarding the origins of the Zohar which, as we know, was written by none other than the holy Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

This essay is undoubtedly a valuable read. However, until recently, it had only been available in Hebrew.

There’s a blog that goes by the name “Ohr Ganuz,” and by following this link, you can access the translated version of the aforementioned article.

As a preview, I present to you the first two pages of the foreword:

In the year 5701 [1941] a book entitled Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism was published in Jerusalem, by professor G. Scholem, in which he treats at length the question of the Zohar and its author. He takes the position of those who attribute the work to R. Moshe de Leon and not of those who fix it at an earlier date.Scholem’s student, Y. Tishby, in his Mishnath ha-Zohar (Jerusalem, 5709/1949), also maintains that the Zohar’s principal parts were written by R. Moshe de Leon, and that no part of the work preceded him.

In the introduction to his book he declares that we must accept the conclusions of his teacher [Scholem] as “the final word in the great dispute concerning the composition of the Zohar and its author, which spanned several generations of Judaic scholarship.”

I have waited many years for someone from among the faithful Torah scholars to arise and deal with this question, however, I have waited in vain. I, myself, possess material in manuscript for my [unpublished] book Midreshei Ḥazal VehaZohar in which I have dealt with hundreds of passages from the Zohar that are quoted in the [first] 17 volumes of my Torah Sheleimah, comparing them to other Midrashic works of the Sages.

I have especially focused on sayings of the Sages which, though quoted by the Rishonim, are not found in extant Midrashim, but which are relevant to the literature of the Zohar and Midrash HaNe`elam.

R. David Luria in his book “Kadmuth Sefer HaZohar,” anaf 2, cited a number of similar passages in order to prove the antiquity of the Zohar, and I have continued in this vein. I have principally shown [the correlation of passages from the Zohar with] Midrashim and the works of ancient scholars which have been discovered in manuscript form in recent times.

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I also discuss in the book many questions and inquiries concerning the Zohar and the relationship between the Zohar and the works of R. M. de Leon. Due to my many other activities I am unable at present to arrange all of the material which I have accumulated. Therefore, I have decided that it is worthwhile to clarify at least some particular points about this important topic.

First of all, I must point out that after having carefully reviewed all of the sources which Scholem and Tishby cite to draw their conclusions, I have found that those sources in fact support the exact opposite.

For it is clear, without any doubt, that the contents of R. M. de Leon’s published works “HaNefesh HaḤachamah” and “Sheqel HaQodesh,” and especially his works that are still in manuscript, “HaRimon” and “Mishkan Ha`Eduth,” demonstrate that R. M. de Leon did not author the Zohar – rather, he made much use of the Zohar manuscripts in his possession and translated many passages into Hebrew.

In the following, I will make it clear that Scholem and Tishby erred in the very foundations of their theory by comparing the works of R. Moshe de Leon to the Zohar.

In general, one who carefully examines the works of R. M. de Leon will clearly see that his style, his mode of expression, his phraseology, his topical descriptions and his methods of explanation and discourse are as far from those of the Zohar as the east is from the west. The pen that wrote them is neither qualified nor competent enough to write even one chapter – let alone the one thousand seven hundred published pages – of the authentic, living Aramaic of the Zohar.

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The Zohar is a gigantic, unique creation. It has a wondrous ability to arouse and enflame a person’s soul to supernal kedushah (holiness). This is the book that speaks to men’s hearts, and thus it has been loved and revered so much over the generations by G-d-fearing, elevated people. It bears no resemblance at all to the books of R. Moshe de Leon, which are ordinary books, like the other Kabbalistic works which were composed in that time period.

To be perfectly honest, I cannot understand the reasoning of the two aforementioned authors. Scholem writes that we must admit that there is a large portion of the Zohar whose Aramaic is exemplary, and which comes from the mouths of sages for whom Aramaic was a living language. And even Tishby writes that the Zohar has unique literary qualities, a sublime and lofty pathos, a style of poetic imagery, colorful and vivid constructs, et cetera.

So, we must inquire: Is it possible to find even one of all these wonderful qualities in the works of R. Moshe de Leon? How could one find one of these things in the books of R. Moshe de Leon? And how, in the midst of writing these same lines, could an author disregard his own statements and declare that it is definite that R. Moshe de Leon wrote the Zohar, and that there is no section of it that precedes his era?

Concluding remarks

So there we have it.

This is just an introductory proof that Kabbalah and the Zohar rest firmly on authentic (orthodox) Jewish Tradition. None of it seeks to uproot any part of the Written or Oral Torah, rather it only reinforces them since, for those who have studied it, know that it comes to reveal their hidden aspects.

Kabbalah is an essential part of the Torah. The fact that there have been so many attempts at destroying it (chas v’shalom) only attests to its exalted nature, far above the physical world. As the Arizal writes:

  • Kabbalah comes from the world of Atzilut
  • The Gemara comes from the world of Beriyah
  • The Mishna comes from the world of Yetzirah
  • All Mikra (Scriptures) come from the world of Assiyah

People fear what they don’t know. Kabbalah is difficult, because its way of learning is fundamentally based on the principle of “knowing everything in order to understand a little”. Before understanding something, you need a large knowledge-base, during which time numerous (and hard) questions arise.

But ultimately this dispute boils down to Emunat Chakhamim. The great luminaries of the ages including Rabbi Chaim Vital, Rav Yosef Karo, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman, the Ramchal, the Gaon of Vilna, the Chofetz Chaim and many other Sephardic and Ashkenazi Mekubalim, Chassidid Rebbes that came afterward unanimously, categorically and unequivocally accepted the authority of the Zohar and the Kabbalah of the Ari.

Who are we to question them?

May we all be zoche to understand all of Hashem’s wisdom!

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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