February 7, 2010


Judaism is overwhelmingly a world-affirming religion, even in its mystical dimension. However, as this excerpt from an academic survey of the Kabbalah shows, there is a place for renouncing the world in Jewish tradition, too—in the mystic’s quest for knowledge and in order to bring about various tikkunim (spiritual reparations).

From Moshe Hallamish, “An Introduction to the Kabbalah,” State University of New York (SUNY) Press, 1999 (trans. Ruth Bar-Ilan), Chapter 6, pp. 84-85.

Gerushin: Divorce From the World

Another technique that is partly connected with graves is known as gerushin (wanderings in exile). This practice branches out into several intertwined offshoots. One is that the Kabbalist detaches himself from his family for a certain period of time and goes out to nature. The narrative episodes in the Zohar therefore often take place in nonpopulated areas. R. Elijah de-Vidas (Introduction to Reshit Hokhmah) . . . and many others attest to the practice among their contemporaries. There is withdrawal from the world in order to ascend to the Root, and participation in the suffering of the Shekhinah, who, like the people of Israel, is in exile. The close identification with the Shekhinah helps one to attain secrets, for the Shekhinah is “the gate of heaven.”

Another offshoot is walking in the desert or visiting the graves of the zaddikim in order to establish spiritual contacts with them and achieve union with their souls. Many descriptions of this practice appear in Gerushin by R. Moses Cordovero and in Sh'ar Ru'ah ha-Kodesh by R. Hayyim Vital. It should be noted that Cordovero explicitly states in several places that the Kabbalists used to stand barefoot beside the tomb of the zaddik, as an indication of mourning for the exile of the Shekhinah and sharing her sorrows.

Still another offshoot of this practice of gerushin is related to the Rabbi Moses Cordovero and his circle. Cordovero describes “what I and others have experienced in connection with gerushin, when we wandered in the fields . . . discussing verses from the Bible suddenly, without previous reflection. On these occasions, new ideas would come to us in a manner that cannot be believed unless one has seen or experienced it many times” (Ohr Ne’erav, part 5, chap. 2).

Though the Kabbalist is willing to drop some hints about what has occurred, he insists that only the person who has either experienced it himself, or at least witnessed it “many times,” is capable of truly and thoroughly understanding it. The Kabbalist runs out to the field, where a biblical verse or a talmudic saying comes out of his mouth spontaneously, without any deliberate preparation on his part. And all of a sudden he finds himself producing a discourse that revolves around this intuitive utterance “and the words of Torah were shining in us and the words were spoken of themselves” (Sefer Gerushin, par. 4).

Here are some detailed descriptions of this striking experience:

“We were still in the study of R. Simeon bar Yohai [i.e., the structure build upon his grave site in Meron] when I concluded my exposition on the subject. Then we fell down [in prayer] in the sepulchre of Rabbi Simeon and Rabbi Eleazar, and with my lips still moving I said a short prayer from the depths of my heart. Then my master arose and expounded [several verses from Deuteronomy] in a manner different from his previous explanations, and so did some other participants. I stood up and looked. I was facing southto my right was the tombstone of R. Eleazar; to my left, that of Rabbi Simeon, of blessed memory. And I opened my discourse by explaining the verse . . . and I said . . . “ (ibid., end para. 17, beg. para. 18).

After mentioning the discourse of Rabbi Solomon ha-Levi Alkabez, which was held by the tomb of Rabbi Yehudah bar Illay, R. Cordovero adds: “And all of this was said by my teacher, for it was the gift of R. Yehudah bar Illay with whose assistance we expounded . . . and we also elaborated on this” (ibid. para 10). In other words, the spirit of the deceased assists the Kabbalists in penetrating mysteries. This is implicit in the following description: “And we, some of the companions, entered into the cave [of the tannaitic rabbis in 'Akhbara] and recited a short prayer and then we went into the field to the rock, where we expounded a scriptural verse…” (ibid., end para. 33).

By entering into the cave and praying there, they were endowed with a special power that enabled them to spontaneously produce an insightful discourse.