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Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570)

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570)

"The Ramak"

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One of the greatest of all Kabbalists was Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. He was born in 1522 in Safed, the city that was soon to become famed as a center of Kabbalah. At a young age, he already gained a reputation as an extroardinary genius. Besides his knowledge in Kabbalah, he was a Talmudic scholar and philosopher of the highest rank, and was widely respected in these fields. He was even one of the four to receive the special semichah-ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Beirav in 1538, along with Rabbis Yosef Caro (Cordovero's teacher in Jewish Law), Moshe of Trani and Yosef Sagis, all of whom were much older and better known than the young prodigy.

But Rabbi Moshe's main interest was the systematization of the Kabbalah, setting it into a philosophical structure. So respected was he in this endeavor that he was the first Kabbalist honored by having the word "the" added before his initials, and even today is known as "The RaMaK."

In 1542, at the age of twenty, the Ramak heard a heavenly voice urge him to study Kabbalah with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (author of the L'cha Dodi prayer sung to welcome the Shabbat on Friday evening). He was thus initiated into the mysteries of the Zohar, the teachings of the seminal kabbalist and Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The young "Ramak" mastered the text completely. This failed to satisfy him, however, since its teachings are often vague, without discernible structure. In order to clarify them in his own mind, he began writing two books. The first was Ohr Yakar ("The Precious Light"), a voluminous commentary on the Zohar. The second, Pardes Rimonim ("Orchard of Pomegranates"), completed in 1548, secured his immortal reputation. The Pardes, as it is known, was a systemization of all Kabbalistic thought up to that time. Especially important was that in it the author reconciled many early schools with the Zohar's teachings, demonstrating the essential unity and self-consistent philosophical basis of Kabbalah.

Two other books for which the Ramak is known are Tomer Devorah ("The Palm Tree of Deborah"), in which he utilizes the Kabbalistic concepts of the Sephirot ("Divine attributes") to illuminate a system of morals and ethics, and Ohr Ne'erav, a justification of and insistence upon the importance of Kabbalah study, and an introduction to its methods.

Around 1550, the Ramak founded a Kabbalah academy in Safed, which he led for 20 or so years, until his passing. It is reported that the prophet Elijah revealed himself to him. Among his disciples were many of the luminaries of Safed, including Rabbi Eliyahu di Vidas, author of Reshit Chokhmah ("Beginning of Wisdom"), and Rabbi Chaim Vital, who later became the official recorder and disseminator of the teachings of the "holy Ari," Rabbi Isaac Luria.

This group of mystics adhered to the methods of the author of the Zohar, and engaged in various acts of penance order to bring about the Redemption. They would spend long hours in the fields meditating and praying, and they would visit the nearby ancient graves of different scholars of the Mishna. When the "Ari" arrived in Safed, he joined this group of Kabbalists, behaving with the utmost modesty, hoping to conceal his greatness. Only the Ramak with his pure vision realized who he was.

Before his passing in 1570, the Ramak said: "I shall soon leave this earth. Yet after my passing, someone will replace me. And even though many of that person's statements may seem to contradict mine, do not oppose him and do not argue with him, for they stem from the same source as do mine and are absolutely true. His soul is a spark of Shimon bar Yochai's, and whoever opposes him opposes the Shechinah (the Divine Presence)."

"What is his name?" the disciples queried.

"I cannot tell you. At this point, he doesn't want his identity made known. This, though, I can say: He who sees the cloud which at my funeral will precede my bed, will be my successor."

A few weeks later, on the 23rd day of the month of Tammuz, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero passed on to his Heavenly reward.

Stunned by the news of this great loss, the entire community mourned. At his funeral, which was attended by all of Safed's Jews, many eulogies were recited. Among the eulogizers was the Ari, who described the Ramak as totally free of sin.

As the throng accompanied the Ramak on his last earthly journey, all wept bitterly. When the bearers of the his holy body reached the cemetery, they continued walking a long while, until reaching a certain site. Then, turning to the following crowd, they said: "We shall bury him here, beside one of Israel's greatest sages."

However, the Ari stopped them, crying out: "Don't bury him here. The cloud which is preceding him has continued on its path. Surely it will indicate where the Ramak desires to be buried."

Hearing these words, all were stunned. Now they knew the identity of their new leader.

That very day, the Ari's fame began to spread, and scores of great scholars began clustering around him.

The Ari lived only two short years longer, and was snatched from this world at the age of 38 in a plague which struck the city of Safed in 1572. But in this short time, he revolutionized the study of Kabbalah. He was the first to explain the concept of the tzimtzum (G‑d's "contraction" of His infinite light to make "place" for creation) and many other Kabbalistic concepts. As predicted by the Ramak, although many of the Ari's teachings seemed to contradict those of his predecessor, eventually all realized that the views of the two really concurred.

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Grace du Prie Ipswich, Australia February 2, 2013

The grandmother of my husband has Ramak as a surname. Is that a Jewish name? Her full name was Sara Apolonia Ramak and she lived in Holland. This Sara was the daughter of Simon Ramak en Sara Apolonia van der Sluis, also from Holland. I have always been curious because of the many Jewish first names in this family such as Abraham, Sara, Simon, Johannes. My husband's surname is du Prie. Strangely, both my husband and myself have had a life-long love for the Jewish people. Reply

Anonymous tzfat, israel July 15, 2010

very helpfull article! really made it very clear and didnt take too much time to read. thank you. Reply