The Kabbalistic Miracle-Worker Who Could See the Unseen, but Not Change It

August 28, 2019 | Eli Yassif
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In the 16th century, the Galilean city of Safed became a major center of kabbalistic study, attracting such important rabbis as Moses Cordovero, Joseph Karo, and, above all, Isaac Luria—whose teachings would become the basis for future understanding of Jewish mysticism. The Jerusalem-born Luria (1534-1572) developed a reputation as a wonderworker, which enhanced Safed’s mythic reputation, but, notes Eli Yassif, his miracles were of a very specific type:

[A]t the foundation of the Lurianic myth lies a highly significant contrast between the claim that Luria performed awe-inspiring deeds that elicited the veneration of his contemporaries and the actual accounts of his deeds, which demonstrate that they involved no more than recognition or knowledge of a world hidden to others.

This is exceptional even from the point of view of comparative folklore. The trademark of saints’ legends, [Jewish and non-Jewish], from the end of antiquity to the modern age is that holy men and women perform supernatural acts. They cure the sick, abrogate the laws of nature, rescue individuals and communities from various dangers, and make intensive use of magical powers (such as the use of the Tetragrammaton). Even the figure with whom Luria’s students, as well as later generations, compared him, Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai, stands out in the talmudic corpus for his magical powers and supernatural deeds.

[Yet] not most, [but] all of the original legends about Luria involve his knowledge or recognition of something. . . . Not a single legend told about Luria during his sojourn in Safed, or [in the decades following his death], recounts a miraculous deed. There are no stories of sick people lining up in front of his door so that he could cure them, or stories of threats to the Safed Jewish community that he averted or undid.

Consider a famous legend about a calf that enters the study room of Luria’s circle and places his forefeet on the table. Luria tells his disciples that they must purchase the calf at any price, slaughter it ritually, and eat its meat communally. The calf, he informs them, houses the soul of a kosher slaughterer who had caused the Jews of Safed to sin. Here . . . Luria does not do anything. He only knows something. As a result of this knowledge, he tells his students what to do, but his instruction does not include any act that takes it out of the realm of everyday life. In other words, Luria . . . does not act like other saints.

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