The Kabbalah of Tzefat

By :  Eitan Fishbane Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On May 14, 2024 / 5784

After the Expulsion from Spain, a mystical revival flourished in Tzefat, building on the fellowship circles that defined groups like the Spanish Kabbalists of previous generations. These communities, which were built on the cultivation of spiritual friendships and master-disciple relationships, developed kabbalistic theology, poetry, ethics, autobiography, halakhah, and more. Elements from this period and place have become well known in contemporary Jewish practice, from the blessings of Kabbalat Shabbat to the notion of reclaiming the divine emanations that shattered with the creation of the world.

Show Notes

Kabbalistic Leaders:

  • Joseph Karo (1488 – 1575): Best known as the writer of the Shulhan Arukh, he was also active in Tzefat’s kabbalist circles. He wrote Sefer Magid Meisharim, a personal reflection on his mystical pursuits
  • Shlomo Alkabetz: Student of Karo who first documented Tikkun Leil Shavuot, composer of Lekha Dodi.Moshe Cordovero: Student of both Karo and Alkabetz.
  • Isaac Luria: Lurianic Kabbalah was documented by his disciples, notably Rabbi Hayyim Vital in Sefer Eitz Hayyim (Book of the Tree of Life) and Sefer Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim (The Gate of Reincarnations)

Connections to Seeing the Unseeable: Kabbalistic Imagery from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

  • Sha’arei Rahamim: printed in 1741 in Salonica, was the first printed prayerbook containing the especially elaborate kavvanot taught by Isaac Luria.
  • Adam Kadmon


Announcer: Welcome to Exploring Kabbalah—a JTS podcast with Dr. Eitan Fishbane, professor of Jewish Thought. Throughout this seven-part series, we’ll trace the evolution of Jewish mysticism—from Biblical and Rabbinic times, to the explosive creativity of the Medieval period, to the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe. Join us for a tour through time and space in which Professor Fishbane provides insight into the thinkers, texts, and concepts that became central not only to the Jewish mystical tradition but to the fabric of Judaism itself. Episode six takes us to Tzefat, the center of Jewish mystical innovation after the expulsion from Spain.

Dr. Eitan Fishbane: Our journey so far has crossed continents and centuries. We pick up our story in the hilltop town of Tzefatin the northern Land of Israel where a mystical revival flourished in the 1500s among a remarkable collection of individuals (many descended from families who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and then Portugal in 1496), involving extraordinary creativity composed of kabbalistic theology, poetry, ethics, autobiography, halakhah, and more.

Modeled after the fellowship circles of the Merkavah mystics and medieval Spanish kabbalists, the cultivation of spiritual friendships and  master-disciple relationships were deep and manifold in 16th Century Tzefat. Mystical practice was rarely a lonely endeavor. The kabbalah of Tzefatwas defined by these social circles, most notably in groups of mystics surrounding Joseph Karo, Moshe Cordovero, and Isaac Luria.

The circle of R. Joseph Karo and his disciples was these groups to thrive in 16th century Tzefat. Though Karo is best known for his work of Jewish law/halakha, the Shulhan Arukh, he also authored a profound mystical diary, Sefer Magid Meisharim, a personal record of his heavenly revelations and alternations between grandiose self-perceptions and anxieties over self-worth. This highly important kabbalistic text reflects mystical experience in its own right and is also part of a larger genre of mystical autobiography that developed in Tzefat. As demonstrated in our exploration of sages like Nachmanides, the Ramban, Karo is both a major rabbinic leader and legal authority who was also a prominent kabbalist.

In addition to his mystical diary, we learn about Karo’s dramatic mystical persona through his disciple, Shlomo Alkabetz. Alkabetz wrote the first account of a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a ritual innovated by the 16th Century kabbalists. It was modeled on key texts from the Zohar regarding all-night study as a mystical practice but developed into an elaborate and specific ritual. Alkabetz witnessed Karo in an ecstatic state of communion with Divinity and possession by the heavenly voice of the Mishnah from the upper realm, an extension of the Shekhina, the same voice who speaks to him throughout Sefer Magid Meisharim. Another Tzefatinnovation that influenced contemporary holiday practice is the Tu B’shvat Seder. First appearing in the controversial work Sefer Hemdat Yamim in the late 17th Century, the ritual and its symbolism are rooted in the Kabbalah developed among the mystics of 16th century Tzefat.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero followed in this line of prominent thinkers—a student of both Alkabetz and Karo. Cordovero was a hugely prolific and often scholastic kabbalist—one might say the Thomas Aquinas of kabbalistic thought and writing. He authored a massive 24 volume commentary on the Zohar titled Or Yakar; a major tome of kabbalistic metaphysics entitled Pardes Rimmonim (The Orchard of Pomegranates); and many other works.

In addition to his more dense work, Cordovero is particularly notable for his authorship of Sefer Tomer Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah), the slim classic of what would come to be known as kabbalistic musar or ethics—The Tomer Devorah discusses the ways in which the ten sefirot ought to be emulated by a person as qualities of ideal character in the individual’s quest to realize be-tzelem Elohim, the idea that they are created in the image of God. A significant passage in this remarkable text is Cordovero’s emphasis on the way in which the human being, like the living organism of the ten sefirot of the One Divinity, must be grounded in compassion, love, and calm.

Perhaps the best-known invention of 16th century Tzefat was the innovation of such famous and enduring rituals as the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service on Friday evening. In one vivid text from the period, the devotee is instructed to stand facing the sun, place their hands over their heart/chest, and recite a selection of specific Psalms that eventually became the Kabbalat Shabbat service as we know it today.

To these Psalms were subsequently added the kabbalistically infused hymns. Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, a student of Karo and a teacher of Cordovero, composed Lekha Dodi. The hymn Yedid Nefesh, was written by another kabbalist, ethicist, and poet of this time and place, Rabbi Elazar Azikri. Among the treasures of the JTS  Library is manuscript of Yedid Nefesh  autographed by Azikri himself. Both poemsfocus on how the Shekhinah, the feminine dimension of Divinity, is revealed and greeted on Shabbat; a tradition in the Zohar as well. These poetic hymns have had an enormous influence on the history of Jewish prayer and they are among the most widely known Jewish prayers today.

We now turn to another mystical fellowship circle of 16th century Tzefat, that of Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known by his acronym, the ARI. A kabbalist whose thought and personality changed the course of Kabbalah for centuries to come. He wrote little himself, though among these few writings were his kabbalistic Sabbath table songs specific to the different Sabbath meals which are still chanted today.

Without his core disciples, most dominantly, by R. Hayyim Vital, there would not be a written record of Lurianic Kabbalah,. Among Vital’s most important collections of Lurianic teaching are his Sefer Eitz Hayyim (Book of the Tree of Life), which, among other things, articulates the ARI’s radically innovative mythology of cosmic origins; and Sefer Sha’ar ha-Gilgulim (The Gate of Reincarnations).

Corresponding in large part to these works and others, the major ideas developed in Lurianic Kabbalah are tzimtzum (withdrawal of divine infinity—the divine infinite light, called Or Ein Sof)in order to leave an empty space (the halal ha panui)—albeit one still laced with the film and traces of the sacred light of Infinity—within which the finite world might be created. As the Lurianic mythology goes, after initial attempts to infuse this Infinite Light into an unformed mass, Divine Infinity placed that original All-Pervasive Light into Vessels (keilim) that corresponded to the ten sefirot to give them shape in the gradual founding of the created world.

But that light proved too powerful for its containers, causing a cataclysmic shattering of the vessels (shevirat ha-keilim), and sending the broken shards of those vessels (the kelipot) down to now form the darkness of matter. Those broken vessel shards were believed to contain and cover traces of that infinite holy divine light that God infused into them—they being in fact luminous extensions of the Divine Self scattered into the world into which humanity would ultimately emerge.

In the wake of this shattering the vessels and the scattering of the light, Divinity sought to mend itself, and reconstituted Itself into a form that was called Adam Kadmon (literally “Primordial or Original Man,” though this was understood to be the Super-Human Divine Figure that would be the model for the subsequent creation of the human as Adam ha-Rishon, First man).

Adam originally emerged as a gargantuan body of light. When enormous and luminous Adam sinned, the light of Divinity once again fell into a state of cosmic rupture and disrepair, but that body of light also shattered into countless fragments of light that fell into the kelipot (and Adam was reduced to a normal human size), each radiant fragment of which was understood to be a root-spark for a soul lineage that was to come to be. From this mythic event arose one final core idea of Lurianic Kabbalah that I shall mention here: the doctrine of soul reincarnation (gilgul), an elaborate theory involving an individual, their metaphysical/heavenly origins and a process of rupture and repair (tikun) in the spiritual practice of that person.

Belief in reincarnation and rebirth is perhaps best known to many from the religious traditions of India, but such ideas are found in a variety of religious traditions, including quite prominently in kabbalistic Judaism. The deep presence of this phenomenon in Jewish sources is little known, and is sometimes surprising.

Getting back to the ARI and his fellowship circle, the disciples would come to Luria as a spiritual physician of the soul. They looked to him to diagnose the flaw or wound of their soul and its history (what sins it committed in a previous physical lifetime), and what specific mitzvot among other penitential practices needed to be enacted in order to bring about that personal tikun. For once all the souls, traveling through many physical generations, are properly repaired, the ultimate redemption and restoration of the cosmos—the universe first broken in that primordial catastrophe of shattered vessels—can be attained.  This ongoing work of tikun, repair is the ultimate goal of Lurianic Kabbalah.

In our next episode, we will pick up on the work of these two mystical circles as we move a century forward and travel westward to Poland. Cordavero’s emphasis on the psychologization of the divine metaphysical sefirot, which was central to his work Tomer Devorah. greatly influenced the rise of Hasidism in 18th century Poland and Russia as well as the Musar movement that developed in Poland in the 19th century. Hasidism deeply engaged and built on the Lurianic idea of the Immanence of God, present as sparks of light in the mundane world and the restoration of these sparks to achieve divine perfection.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to Exploring Kabbalah with Professor Eitan Fishbane, a JTS podcast. It was recorded and produced by Ellie Gettinger, with editing assistance from Sarah Brown. I’m Rabbi Julia Andelman, JTS’s Director of Community Engagement. The music for this series is Yah Notein Binah by sixteenth-century Kabbalist Israel Najara, from the album Seeds of Song, produced by JTS. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. For those who want to dig deeper, visit, where you’ll find sources, archival material, and more in the Exploring Kabbalah show notes—along with the complete library of JTS podcasts.