Simeon ben Yohai
A second-century rabbi. The current leadership of Kabbalah, including Rav Berg, believe that ben Yohai wrote the first version of the Zohar, Kabbalah’s core text. Ben Yohai’s supporters say he and his son Eliezar hid in a cave for thirteen years to escape persecution by the Romans. While trapped in the cave, Yohai and his son studied the Torah. Twice per day, the prophet Elijah visited and delivered holy wisdom to the two men. As ben Yohai’s wisdom grew, God inspired him to write the Zohar. Much of the text of the Zohar consists of stories about Simeon ben Yohai and his followers wandering around the desert sharing their interpretations of passages from the Torah. If indeed it was written by Yohai, the Zohar vanished until the thirteenth century, when it was rediscovered by Moses de Leon. Some kabbalists credit de Leon with having authored the Zohar, shifting its first date of publication over one thousand years after ben Yohai supposedly wrote the first version.
Isaac the Blind (1235–?)
An early kabbalist from Provence, in the south of France, he was one of the first scholars to devote his entire life’s work to Kabbalah. Isaac’s most important contribution to Kabbalah was the introduction of a style of meditation that concentrated on the sefirot, or the “ten aspects of God.” Isaac believed that a mind that attempted to meditate on the sefirot would ascend through heaven and eventually be united with God. Kabbalists continue to use Isaac the Blind’s approach to sefirot meditation in seeking mystical communications with God.
Moses de Leon (1250–1305)
A Spanish writer of books on mysticism, Moses De Leon began handing out pamphlets in 1280 that he claimed had been written by Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai (see above). These small books were the beginning of what would later become Sefer ha-Zohar, or the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah. Perhaps because so many believed that the text was written by such a renowned rabbi—ben Yohai—the Zohar quickly spread among Kabbalah followers in Spain and France and became the foundation of Kabbalah.
Though kabbalists doubted the authorship of the Zohar almost from the very beginning, it was not until relatively recently that most scholars began to question whether Yohai had in fact written the Zohar. Those who do believe Yohai authored the Zohar argue that de Leon recovered the lost writings from the cave in which Yohai hid while escaping the Romans and brought them back to Spain. But many now argue that de Leon himself wrote the books, pointing out that the Aramaic used in the Zohar differs from the Aramaic spoken by Yohai.
Moses Cordovero (1522–1570)
Cordovero was a leading figure in Safed, a kabbalistic community established on the Sea of Galilee in Palestine in the 1500s. He became known for Pardes Rimonim, or The Pomegranate Orchard, a book that brought together nearly all existing kabbalistic teachings. Cordovero’s attempts to refine and explain the common conception of the sefirot proved to be enormously influential as well. Isaac Luria, a student of Cordovero’s for two to three years, later incorporated Cordovero’s ideas into his own theories, revolutionizing the teaching of Kabbalah.
Isaac Luria (1534–1572)
Luria’s great contribution to Kabbalah was the idea of tsimtsum, or God’s first act of withdrawal. Luria theorized that because God’s vastness consumed everything, God first had to withdraw into itself to make room for the creation of the universe. When Ein Sof withdrew, it created divine “vessels” to receive energy its energy in the form of light. But the light was too strong for some of these vessels, and they broke up in a process called shevirah, or shattering. Luria argued that the broken pieces of the vessels descended into the world of material reality—the human realm—where they remained trapped until Kabbalah followers could liberate them through righteous kabbalistic study. Luria taught for just two years in Safed before dying in an epidemic. He wrote very little, so most of what we know of his teachings comes from his students’ transcriptions of his lectures. Luria’s influence was so pervasive that all of modern Kabbalah is typically referred to as “Lurianic Kabbalah.”
Shabbetai Tzvi (1626–1676)
A manic depressive who spent his life vacillating between two convictions: first, that he was the Messiah, and second, that he was possessed by demons. Meeting Nathan of Gaza convinced Tzvi that he was the Messiah, and together the two men convinced hundreds of thousands of Jews that Tzvi would lead the liberation of Palestine from the Turks and the return of the Jewish people to paradise. As a scholar and religious leader, Tzvi preached fervently, but often made little sense, or spoke in contradictions. The fundamental weakness of his convictions and his psychological state proved to be his undoing: when the Sultan of Turkey threatened to kill him in 1666, Tzvi agreed to convert to Islam, a stunning surrender that branded Tzvi as a traitor and tainted the entire kabbalistic community.
Nathan of Gaza (1643–1680)
Nathan became famous as a prophet for the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi. After 1665, his followers began to call him buzina kaddisha, or “the holy lamp,” believing he brought the light of the Messiah with him. Nathan of Gaza convinced hundreds of thousands that Tzvi would liberate Palestine, the historical homeland of all Jews, from Turkish rule. After Tzvi converted to Islam under threat of execution, Nathan continued to write impassioned defenses of Tzvi, maintaining that Tzvi was the Messiah even after Tzvi’s death in 1676. Retiring from public life, Nathan declared that Tzvi was only in hiding and would soon appear to carry out God’s original blueprint for paradise. Nathan died four years later in 1680 in Skopje, Macedonia. His few remaining followers maintained his grave as the final resting place of a saint. The grave remained intact until it was destroyed in World War II.
Rav Philip Berg (1929–)
The head of the Kabbalah Centre, the international headquarters of Kabbalah. Born Feivel Grusberger in Brooklyn, Berg is a former insurance salesman who has risen to become the most recognized and influential leader of contemporary Kabbalah. Berg has clashed often with traditional Jewish authorities who object to the spread of Kabbalah beyond its original bounds—Kabbalah study was once limited to married Jewish men over forty with extensive knowledge of the Torah. The Kabbalah Centre now boasts twenty major branches in the United States, Israel, Canada, Europe, and South America, and twenty smaller centers elsewhere in the world. Berg has written several of today’s most popular books about Kabbalah, including Immortality, Wheels of the Soul, To the Power of One, and The Essential Zohar. He also supervised the publication of the first English translation of and commentary on the Zohar, which spans twenty-two volumes.