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Reports of Miracles From Safed

How the great kabbalist Isaac Luria changed the perception of the world without changing the world itself

Eli Yassif
August 21, 2019
Library of Congress
Around the Sea of Galilee, Safed Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Around the Sea of Galilee, Safed Library of Congress

One of the formative texts of the Safed myth, which first portrayed the town as a unique place and which was responsible for spreading word of it all around the Jewish world, is the four letters that Rabbi Solomon Shlumil of Dreznitz sent, in 1607, to his relatives in Bohemia after immigrating to Safed in 1602. These documents changed the image and history of the Upper Galilean mysterious city for contemporary European Jews. A passage from the first letter states:

And had I come to announce his eminence, all the wonders, and the great deeds of Luria, may his memory be a blessing, before all of Israel in the land of glory, here in Safed, may it be built and established quickly in our day, which were told to me by my teacher and rabbi, Mas‘ud Ma‘arabi, may God protect and bless him, and from some of the rabbis and great scholars of the Land who poured water on his hands [studied directly under him] and who saw with their own eyes wondrous things from him that have not been seen in the entire land since the days of the tanna’im. Like Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai], may he rest in peace, he had all the virtues such that he had knowledge of all the deeds of human beings and even their thoughts. He had knowledge of the wisdom that was in the countenance and soul of human beings and their incarnations and could say what evil men had been reincarnated in trees, stones, or in beasts and fowl, and he could say what transgressions a man had made from the commandments and the transgressions [he had committed] since his childhood, and he had knowledge of when amends had been made for this fault, and he had knowledge of the chirping of the birds and from their flight comprehended wonderful things, and this is like [the biblical verse, Ecclesiastes 10:20] “for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” And he comprehended all this through his piety and abstinence and holy purity.

It is hard to understand how we could not have noticed that this text, which has been read and examined so many times, contains a most significant internal contradiction. Shlumil, who in his first letter includes testimonies about the atmosphere and traditions of Safed as he felt and heard them during his years of residence there, speaks of “wondrous things from him that have not been seen in the entire land since the days of the tanna’im.” In other words, in Safed Isaac Luria (1534–1572) performed (“before all of Israel”) wondrous and exceptional deeds. With his supernatural powers he performed deeds that elicited the awe of the people of Safed, who saw these acts with their own eyes.

Shlumil records these explicit testimonies conveyed by people in Safed in his letter, and it is from this letter that European and Oriental Jewish communities formed their mythical image of Safed, centered on the figure of Luria and his miracles. But when Shlumil goes on to recount what these deeds were, the expression that gets repeated almost everywhere is “he knew”: He knew about the reincarnation of evil people in trees and stones, beasts and fowl; he knew about the transgressions of each person from birth and the amends he had made for them; he knew the meaning of the chirping of the birds and their flight.

In writing that we have not noticed this contradiction, I have in fact done an injustice to the great and incisive early-17th-century Venetian rabbi and scholar Leon of Modena (Judah Aryeh). Leon wrote in ‘Ari Nohem, “And the wonders of Luria they tell, the basis of most of them is that he had knowledge about everyone what his soul had been in previous lives [gilgul].” His cautious choice of words displays his precision—he does not assert that Luria performed wonders but rather that they tell of such wonders. Leon says that he is presenting us with stories about Luria’s wonders, not facts, because he did not believe that the wonders had indeed occurred. Writing in 1620, the Venetian sage perceived that in these stories Luria does not actually do anything. Instead, he “recognized,” or in Shlumil’s formulation, “he had knowledge of.”

Thus at 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 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 to whom Luria’s students, as well as later generations, compared him, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, stands out in the Talmudic corpus for his magical powers and supernatural deeds. Almost all Jewish legends exalting medieval heroes—Rashi, Maimonides, Avraham ibn Ezra, Judah the Pious—include supernatural motifs in which these figures are depicted as able to change the normal course of events in a miraculous way.

To be somewhat less cautious than Leon was, I would say not that most of the original legends about Luria involve his knowledge or recognition of something but that they are all of this sort. Not a single legend told about Luria during his sojourn in Safed (or the fifty years around 1600 that this book is concentrated on; I am not speaking here about legends fashioned centuries later) 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.

This claim is reinforced by Rabbi Joseph Karo, who relates at the beginning of his intimate journal Magid Meisharim his potent desire to perform miracles like those performed by the great Jewish figures who had come before him:

And so adhere always to the blessed name [God] and you will be favored to have miracles performed by you as they were performed by the ancients, and this people will know that there is a God in Israel, for now there are no miracles, because the heavenly name is not sanctified, because the world does not see that miracles are performed by the wise men, and when they see that they are performed by you, the name of heaven will be sanctified.

Karo’s language here is innocent, meaning that the center of interest is himself, not what is happening around him. He feels that he is not as saintly as the “ancients.” He therefore must strive to achieve their level of sanctity so that he will be favored to perform miracles. His miracles will in turn bring the Jewish people to “know that there is a God in Israel.” This common idea in medieval Judaism was known as “a memorial for his works” (Psalms 111:4). According to this idea, recognition of God’s existence and his involvement in the world is produced by the manifestation of miracles in everyday life.

Karo makes two claims of interest to the subject under discussion here. First, he does not even consider the possibility that another man—for example, Luria—might be able to achieve the spiritual level needed to perform miracles. Although this text was almost certainly written before Luria’s arrival in Safed, Karo could refer to other famous miracle workers there. According to his self-estimation, if he himself were not to do so, the name of heaven would not be sanctified.

Second, Karo states clearly and explicitly that “now there are no miracles.” In other words, the myth of Safed that later generations fostered and disseminated, that Safed had then been full of miracle-performing saints with Luria at their head, was utterly unknown to a man who lived in that town throughout its golden age and who ranks as the most preeminent of its scholars. Luria himself addressed this point directly, according to the testimony of his disciple Rabbi Hayyim Vital.

[This is said] for a person who uses practical Kabbalah [mystical magic]. I will first comment on what its sin is. And these are the words of my late teacher, may peace be on his memory. I, the writer, Hayyim, asked my late teacher about the use of practical Kabbalah, which is forbidden in all the works of the recent masters of Kabbalah. And if so, how did Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, may peace be on them, in the Pirkei Heikhalot use names of awe for the matter of remembering and opening the heart? And he responded to me that in their time the ashes of the [red] heifer were available, and they would entirely purify themselves of all pollution, but we all are in a state of impurity caused by the dead, and there are no ashes of the heifer to purify us from impurity caused by the dead… and therefore we are not permitted in these times to use the holy names and one who uses them is liable for a great punishment, as I will write below.

And another time my teacher, may peace be on his memory, responded to the same man in a different way, in this way: “Know that all the names [of God] and charms that can now be found written in books are in error, and even the names and charms that were tried and perfected by the experts have many mistakes. Thus it is forbidden to use them. But if we knew the names in their proper and true way, we too would be permitted to use them.”

Luria does not deny the validity and truth of Jewish magic—what Vital calls practical Kabbalah. He of course cannot dismiss the hundreds of ancient sources that mention the use of magic, from rabbinic through medieval to contemporary texts. But, as he always does, he frames magic as a theoretical possibility that cannot actually be manifested in his own time.

Orthodox Jews walk to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Isaac Luria Ben-Shlomo (Ha’Ari Ha’Kadosh) at the ancient cemetery of the northern Israeli city of Safed (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Orthodox Jews walk to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Isaac Luria Ben-Shlomo (Ha’Ari Ha’Kadosh) at the ancient cemetery of the northern Israeli city of Safed (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

At two different opportunities Luria offers two different explanations for the absence of magical powers from Jewish life of his time; one is the ritual pollution caused by dead bodies, which there is no way of purifying now, and the other is the ignorance of those who write holy names for use as charms. In both cases the conclusion is identical: There was no magic in his time in Safed. But tales, whether told deliberately or spontaneously, have a life of their own. Even though Luria himself explicitly denied reports of him performing miraculous deeds and even the very possibility that such deeds could be performed in his time, his fame as a wonder-working saint remains firmly ensconced to this day.

Yet, significantly, outside the general rumors attached to Luria’s figure, the legends recounted in Shlumil’s letters, which were the basis of the later Lurianic vitae Shivkhei ha-’Ari (Praises of the Ari [Luria]), make no mention of any miracles that he actually performed. Despite the temptation to fashion magical legends around the figure of Luria, no such stories came into being in Safed in the years around 1600. This fact demonstrates that legends of Jewish saints of this time should not be seen as the products of unchecked fantasy and imagination. Rather, they are narratives that relate to the fundamental nature of their lives, stories that intricately interpret those lives while often remaining faithful to the actual facts about them.

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 him ritually, and eat its meat communally. The calf, he informs them, houses the soul of a ritual slaughterer who had caused the Jews of Safed to sin. Here, too, 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, once more, does not act like other saints.

Another such example is the Tale of the Locusts. Here, Luria, sitting with his students outside the walls of Safed, knows that a huge swarm of locusts is on its way to the city to punish its inhabitants for not helping a poor man who was in dire straits. Once again, he takes no action. Yes, he instructs his students to collect alms for the poor man, but he uses no magic to avert the catastrophe:

And once Luria told our teacher, Rabbi Yitzhak Cohen, to go to the village of Ein Zeitun, to the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda bar Ila‘i, and convey to him his interpretation of a passage from the Zohar. And he commanded him not to speak with anyone and not to respond to anyone. Then he, may peace be on him, went and prostrated himself on the grave of Rabbi Yehuda bar Ila‘i, may peace be on him, in the village of Ein Zeitun and did as he commanded him, and the holy tanna did not make any answer to him. Then he returned to his teacher and said, “Master, I went to the tomb of the tanna and I did as you commanded, and I received no answer from him.” Luria, of blessed memory, responded to him, “And did I not see in a vision that you spoke with an Arab woman? Not only did she not greet you, but you went first and greeted her in such and such a place, and I commanded you not to speak with any person!” Then our venerable teacher Rabbi Yitzhak Cohen recalled that so it had been and confessed to him … and he also discovered the grave of Rabbi Kruspadai close to here, which had not been known, and there had never been any marker upon it, and it lies close to the bank of the river, and also the grave of Rabbi Pinhas Ben-Ya’ir, which no man had ever known, he, may peace be on him, revealed, and like these he revealed burial places of untold and innumerable tanna’im and prophets. And he used to say that because the tanna’im and saints who are from the hidden world, no markers were placed on them and their location was not known. And when he went to the cemetery of Safed, may it be built and established quickly in our day, he would say here lies a certain pious man whose name is this, and here another pious man whose name is that, and they investigated after him and found that he had been directed to the truth, as if he had been there at their funerals.

This is a typical account in Shlumil’s letters, which I have cited only in part here. They all consistently and insistently repeat the same claim: Luria knows. He does not cause things to happen; he does not intervene in mundane or divine events using supernatural knowledge or powers. Rather, he knows things that exist only in the hidden world, that are invisible to creatures of flesh and blood. For the most part, he does nothing with this knowledge. Sometimes, as in these examples, he tells one of his disciples to act in this world—to buy a calf and slaughter it, to give alms to a poor man. But this knowledge and the actions that derive from it have nothing in common with the magical deeds attributed to the saints, whether Christian or Jewish, in the saints’ legends of the medieval and early modern period.

One important testimony in this regard, the reliability of which is testified to by the text itself, is related by Shlumil in his fourth letter:

And a disciple of Luria, may his righteous memory be for a blessing, the scholar Rabbi Gedaliah Halevi, told me that in the time of Luria, may his righteous memory be for a blessing, he would tell his disciples awe-inspiring and wonderful things that he saw each day time after time. He would position himself on a mountain that stood outside the town, and from there he saw the whole cemetery of Safed and saw hosts of souls that ascended from the graves to ascend to the divine paradise and the opposite as well, he saw myriads that descended in their place and these were the additional souls that are added to [the people of] Israel on the Sabbath. And out of all the confusion and mixing of the souls and hosts there, his eyes dimmed and could not see and he had to close his eyes, and yet he saw all the same things when his eyes were closed. And also once Luria, of righteous memory, went to study Torah with his disciples in a field and he saw that sitting on all the trees were tens of thousands of souls, and also there was a stream close by and he saw that thousands and tens of thousands of souls were floating and teeming on the water. When he saw them, he asked what their nature was, and they answered him that they had heard about his saintliness, that he had it in his power to rectify them, and that they were souls who had been pushed outside the curtain [of the divine presence] for not having repented, and about the reincarnations they had gone through in this world. And the holy sage promised to do all he could to obtain their ascent. And the sage related this afterward to his disciples because they had seen him ask and respond and did not know what about, and he told them the entire occurrence.

This testimony is important for a number of reasons. First, it is reliable. The chain of transmission is direct and clear—from the event itself to the disciple who was present and heard Luria speak, to the oral account that Shlumil heard directly, to the written text.

I do not mean to claim that the incident took place exactly as described. After all, more than a generation had gone by between the time of the event, 1571–1572 (Luria’s arrival in Safed to his death there a year later), and Shlumil’s letter, which was written in 1607. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that Rabbi Halevi heard precisely this story and was not influenced by the burgeoning of Luria’s reputation over the intervening thirty-five years. But the chain of transmission and the fact that the basis of the account is anchored in the spiritual milieu of Luria’s Safed seem to be beyond doubt.

The story’s fascination lies in Luria’s behavior. He closes his eyes, murmurs some words to himself, enters into himself, and utterly ignores the presence of his disciples. Such behavior greatly amplifies the mystery that his students sense in his company and the charismatic power that derives from that aura, as will be seen later. Furthermore, the absolute, unquestioning credence with which his disciples accept his report cannot but elicit our wonder. Some stories of this type include “proof” that Luria speaks the truth and possesses miraculous knowledge. But it is clear that such proofs are directed largely at people outside the community of believers. None of his disciples seeks to verify the master’s story. It is accepted, here and in nearly all similar stories, without any shadow of a doubt and without any demand for substantiation of any sort.

In any case, if we expected “awe-inspiring and wonderful things,” as we are promised here, the promise is not kept. Again, Luria does not do anything, nor, as far as we know, does he keep his promise to do anything later. He simply has miraculous knowledge and perception of events “behind the curtain.” He is not involved in any instance of supernatural action. Even the souls that gather around him to request that he rectify them do not receive this. Luria does not act; rather, he sees and knows.

Rabbi Halevi’s story also demonstrates one more important point. In all the miracle stories about Luria, the world does not change. What changes is perception of the world. To the outside observer of the Safed cemetery, the stream at its feet, and the trees and stones surrounding it, nothing has happened. The world remains just as it was before Luria’s miraculous manifestation within it. But after Luria reveals to his disciples what really has taken place, a huge change occurs in the way they see the world. After hearing their master, they sense no physical change in reality, but they will never again view the world as they did before. From this point on, they will observe the world around them through the prism of Luria’s awareness.

One of the important components of the mystery that surrounded the figure of Luria was the fact that a sage of his stature wrote so little. Only a handful of texts that can be ascribed to him directly and several Aramaic liturgical poems for the Sabbath have survived. No more. His doctrine, as is well known, has come down to us through his teachings to his disciples, recorded, mainly, by Rabbi Hayyim Vital. It is difficult to evaluate where Luria’s authentic teachings end and Vital’s reworking and interpretation of them begin. This issue is no less complex than the question of how to distinguish which of the doctrines and arguments that Plato attributes to Socrates in his dialogues are actually ones taught or made by Plato’s teacher. The question of why Luria did not write down his teachings and thoughts caused his students sleepless nights during his lifetime. They did not hesitate to ask him.

And indeed in one instance the sages of Safed once asked him, “Our Master, Candle of Israel, the Almighty gave Your Eminence so much wisdom, why should the Rabbi not compose a single good and illuminating work so that Torah not be forgotten by Israel?” He responded to them in these words: “Were all the seas ink and all the sky parchment and all the cane pens, they would not suffice to write down all my wisdom. And when I begin to reveal to you a single secret from the Torah, so much plentitude multiplied within me, like a swift-flowing river, and I seek ploys, from where to open for you a thin small channel to tell you a single secret from the Torah, a tiny thing that you could bear, not to multiply for you more than your strength can bear and thus cause it all to be lost, like a baby choking because too much milk came for him. Therefore my advice is this, that you yourselves write down all that you hear from me, and it will remain for your memory and for the generations to come.

This story, which makes several appearances in the Safed corpus, is of primary importance for understanding the way in which Luria’s character is reflected in the legends. Here, too, Luria’s claim regarding the great wisdom granted to him is not perceived by his disciples as pride or boastfulness but rather as an unquestionable truth.

Luria’s assertion that his wisdom is vast is presented here as another instance of the miraculous knowledge with which he had been endowed. But Luria truly grapples with the question only in the second half of the story, where he offers two different explanations. The first has to do with him, the second with his students. The second explanation is simpler and easier to understand; it is largely a didactic issue. Luria knows that his disciples, like a baby at his mother’s breast, cannot drink from the profuse channel of his wisdom. They need a thin stream. Thus he counsels that they write down his teachings in accord with their ability to absorb them. If Luria himself were to write down his miraculous knowledge, his students would choke on its plentitude and would not be able to take in any of his wisdom.

The first explanation is more complex and more interesting, in that it contains an important and revealing element of personal confession. Luria admits that each time he tries to put his teaching into words, “so much plentitude multiplied within me, like a swift-flowing river, and I seek ploys, from where to open for you a thin small channel.” In other words, his ideas come so profusely that he can find no way to order and verbalize them in a way that others could understand and plumb their depths.

To put it another way, Luria here admits, if obliquely, that he suffers from some sort of communication disorder that arises from a curse of profusion. There is such a wealth of possibilities, worlds, and ideas, so many ways of thinking and creating, that he cannot focus on any one thing, on a single idea, to give it a clear formulation with an orderly line of thought from beginning to end—which would be the only way they could be put into writing. This confession directs us precisely to the subject to which this article is devoted: Luria is a man of knowledge, not action. He and his disciples are aware of the huge and astonishing abundance of his knowledge but recognize that when this abundance needs to be transferred into the dimension of action, from awareness into writing, he fails utterly. The same phenomenon notable in the miracle stories about Luria here manifests itself in his learning; he is unable to turn his miraculous abilities from potential into action.

This article is adapted from “And He Had Knowledge About Everyone,” in The Legend of Safed: Life and Fantasy in the City of Kabbalah, trans. Haim Watzman. Reprinted with permission of Wayne State University press.

Eli Yassif is professor emeritus of Jewish Folk-Culture in The School of Jewish Studies, Tel-Aviv University. His book, The Hebrew Folktale: History, Genre, Meaning (Indiana University Press, 1999), won the National Jewish Book Award.