An Aspiring Mekubal

The confessions of a Rabbi and would be mystic

Kabbalah and Halakha

This seems to be going around.  So I’ll talk about it here.  Some people seem to think that there is a tension between Kabbalah and  Halakha.  Whether in regards to Tefillin, Shabbat Candle lighting, or lacing one’s fingers as was a recent topic of a good deal of discussion over at the Daat Torah blog.  I can see how one could arrive at this assumption give that some Kabbalistic customs may seem to contradict what is minhag/halakha of certain communities.

First let me define Kabbalistic custom.  For purposes of this post, a Kabbalistic custom will only be those things directly stated in the Kitvei Ha’Ari.  While I know that Chassidim have a number of customs that they claim are based in Kabbalah, and they may well be firmly based in an Admur’s own pilpul of Kabbalistic texts, the vast majority of halakhic works only call things a Kabbalistic custom if it was actually written in the Kitvei Ha’Ari.  So I am going to go that route as well.

It is important to understand that when Ari taught, the Shulhan Arukh had not been compiled yet, and when Rav Haim Vital codified the Kitvei HaAri the Shulhan Arukh was just going into publication, which in an era before the printing press, meant that it was being hand copied and sent off to various Gedolim, Yeshivot, ect.  Until that point halakha was still rather loosely based upon what individual rabbis and poskim understood from the vast commentaries of the Rishonim.

The Arizal himself was an ilui in every branch of Torah, thus his customs and more importantly his own halakhic rulings while they may differ somewhat from what the Maran laid down as Sephardic halakha in the Shulhan Arukh, are not without significant basis in the works of the Rishonim.  So they have rather strong basis in halakha.  Second to that is that they have been reaffirmed many times over the last 500yrs by numerous Sephardi(and in some cases) Ashkenazi poskim.

Along with that, a vast majority of Kabbalistic customs are not actual halakhot.  This is where Rav Ovadia Yosef tends to be at odds with the Kaf HaHaim, the Ben Ish Hai, and numerous contemporary Rabbis.  A lot can be said about the reasons on both sides, but for now I am going to go with what has been said by Rabbi Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, and Rav Tzedakka ZTz”l, both of whom were mekubalim in their own right and staunch defenders of Rav Ovadia, simply there needs to be a Rav for the common person.

Kabbalistic customs are typically humrot and acts of personal piety.  As much as some today seem like they would like to, you cannot force that whole sale on the Jewish populace(more on this in a future post).  Before there was a nation, and more importantly when Jews were in countries hostile to them, it was a possibility to do that.  However, both on the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sides we watched those religious societies crumble in astonishing numbers when the sword was lifted from their necks, in the haskala in Germany for Ashkenazim and later amongst Sephardim when they made their way to Israel.

Rav Karo wrote the Shulhan Arukh without many of the humrot that wrote in his commentary on the Beit Yosef.  Five Hundred years later Rav Ovadia is recapturing that simple and standard halakha.  The vast majority of Mekubalim see this as a good thing.  As I have stated before many even instruct their own children according to the Rav Ovadia, allowing them to choose a more stringent path if they would like.  All of this to say, that if you really think that Kabbalah is somehow contradicting Halakha you have got something wrong.

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10 thoughts on “Kabbalah and Halakha

  1. I really enjoyed this post, it cleared up several questions I had about the perceived tension between kabbalah and halachah. Great blog!

    One question this brings up for me (even though the question is off topic). I was once told that true kabbalah is anything that is not written. The word kabbalah meaning received so that precludes anything that has been written down. So, once the Zohar was written (or I guess what they meant was once the material from the oral tradition) it ceased to be kabbalah. Now this material is part of the written tradition. Could you clarify or correct this?

    • Kabbalah simply means received. Granted most of Kabbalah was for the majority of its existence only an oral tradition. Though I wouldn’t say that it strictly means that which was not written.

      Quite honestly you are heading more into the realm of linguistic anomalies and idioms. Even within Jewish law there are certain things that are a “Kabbalah”, Safrut, Shchitta and Family purity to name a few of the exceptionally common ones. What that means in those areas, and I think it translates well into Torat Nistar(Kabbalah), is that despite copious volumes being written on seemingly every minute detail, we do not trust a person to be proficient unless they learned it from someone who was a master of it, who learned it from someone else before them.

      Whereas I could sit in a Yeshiva in a corner by myself and learn the halakhot of say Kashrut or Shabbat and then take the Rabbinut exams with nothing more than a letter from a Rosh Yeshiva acknowledging that I had studied said material in his Yeshiva. For those things one also need provide a letter from a recognized Sofer/Shochet/Posek in Family Purity ect, saying that they think you have properly learned the material in question.

      So today while all of the works of the Arizal are in print and readily available, along with numerous commentaries, one typically is not considered to be an authentic Mekubal unless they have learned under someone who is an authentic Mekubal. There is very good reason for this, in that over time meanings of words change and so does the outlook/worldview, which can if left unguarded, lead to spurious readings. It is my opinion that this happens more than a little with the Rambam, but that is another post.

  2. This is the analogy I like to use. There are real neurosurgeons and then there are people who have read “Neurosurgery for dummies” and like to share the wisdom they learned with people as if they were real “experts”.
    Similarly, the problem isn’t real kabbalists. It’s the BT’s and other folks who have dabbled in kabbala, are always looking for a chumrah to distinguish themselves and who then say “Well maybe the Shulchan Aruch permits it but the Ari/Zohar forbid it so it’s really an aveirah if you do it.”

  3. >>>It is important to understand that when Ari taught, the Shulhan Arukh had not been compiled yet, and when Rav Haim Vital codified the Kitvei HaAri the Shulhan Arukh was just going into publication, which in an era before the printing press, meant that it was being hand copied and sent off to various Gedolim, Yeshivot, ect. Until that point halakha was still rather loosely based upon what individual rabbis and poskim understood from the vast commentaries of the Rishonim.

    This is not correct. The Bet Yosef and Shulchan Aruch were both published in Maran’s lifetime. (I could be wrong but I think the Bet Yosef was the first hebrew sefer published in its author’s lifetime!) The Shulchan Aruch was published in 1565 and the Ari didnt get to Safed until 1569-1570 by which time both the Bet Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch had been printed and reprinted. Thus, by the time the Ari started teaching, he no doubt had seen both those works. The process of “codification” of the Kitvei Ari took place even later than that.

    • Please read my words carefully. I do not say that the B”Y was not in print. Instead I say that this was primarily what was relied upon. The Shulhan Arukh was published in Venice 1655, once, in a very limited print, and not again until well after Maran Karo’s Petira. The was due in large part to the rather enormous opposition the text initially faced. Most people credit the Sma and Magen Avraham with resuscitating the text and bringing it to the prominence it now enjoys. Hence I said that it was just going into print, intending that it was relatively young in its publication history. Considering that even in Tzfat at the time a majority of Maran’s contemporaries rejected the work(one calling it suitable only for small children and Am Haartzim), and considering his ongoing Herem from the Rabbis in Jerusalem, I think that it would be fairly difficult to say that it was in anyway an accepted halakhic work in his life, in the Ari’s life, and frankly even in Haim Vital’s life.

  4. ” The Shulhan Arukh was published in Venice 1655, once, in a very limited print, and not again until well after Maran Karo’s Petira. ”

    1655? It was printed in 1565 (Venice) and then 1578, which was only 3 years after his petirah.

    See here for digital versions of the first two editions:

    http://aleph.nli.org.il/nnl/dig/books_rab.html

    True, it was not widely accepted as authoritative within his lifetime, but it had been published 6 or 7 years before the Ari died. It happens that Ari had a different halachic theory from Maran, so it should not be surprising if he, independently of how others were reacting to it, should also have not bent his own views.

    I’m not sure it’s fair to say that it wasn’t even accepted widely by 1620 (when R. Hayyim Vital died). For example, the Shelah already writes that the Rema is authoritative for the Ashkenazim (Shnei Luhot Ha-berit, Sha’ar He-‘otiyot “kedusha”) and he died in 1626. True, the Rema was his father’s teacher, and Shela”h wasn’t actually printed until later. But we see that rabbis already accorded the Shulhan Arukh such status even before the Magen Avraham was born, and apparently during the lifetime of R. Hayyim Vital.

    In any case, a careful reading of your words doesn’t say what your clarification says. If your clarification is what you meant, so be it. But clearly “when Ari taught, the Shulhan Arukh had not been compiled yet” doesn’t work when it was in print while Ari yet lived.

    Perhaps this comment should have been sent by email, but I couldn’t find your address. I apologize if it was too critical.

    • Typo as far as the date.

      As far as the Shelah and the Rema, that could very well have been referring to his commentary on the Tur, as much as to his notes on the Sh”A.

      As far as saying that the Sh”A wasn’t compiled, with the Notein Kelim, it was not… but fair enough.

      As far as tension between the Vital and Karo… well Vital had Semikha from some of the very individuals who opposed the Shulkhan Arukh… Though he typically refers to the Beit Yosef. My guess was that while it was Rabbanim such as the Magen Avraham that in essence resuscitated the Shulhan Arukh, I doubt that the Marh”u necessarily saw it as authoritative within his own life.

  5. I disagree. Maran was the recognized gadol hador in halacha and chief rabbi of Safed. We even have a question in halacha posed to Maran by the Ari.

    There was opposition to the codification of the SA, especially in Ashkenaz, but that is more about codification than about Maran.

    Lastly, it was Maran himself who said the SA was for “young students”. Nonetheless, he asked that his tombstone state simply, “Author of the Shulchan Aruch”, for unlike in Ashkenaz, disseminating Torah to the masses is not viewed as lowly. The greatest sages of Sepharad like Maran, the Ben Ish Hai, and ROY all teach the masses. They do not restrict their Torah to the learned few.

    • Not quite sure of of your point. That question isn’t about R’ Karo’s gadlut, its about the acceptance of the Shulhan Arukh. Specifically as to whether either the Arizal or Haim Vital saw the Sh”A as necessarily binding.

      Source please for the Ari asking him a question regarding Halakha? I have heard that story both ways, and have yet to see proof of either.

      Just because a person is a “Chief Rabbi” of a city does not automatically make them the accepted authority by everyone in that city. That should be plain enough from the same institutions in Israel today. The only real difference being that it was a lifetime post in the days of Maran.

      That his Sh”A was roundly criticized by his contemporaries in Tzefat cannot be ignored.

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