Moses Cordovero

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


When En Soph hides himself in the recesses of His holy and pure perfection, no letter, dot or picture can represent Him. For no illustration by picture, letter or point may be postulated of the Crown – how much less of the Source of emanation, the supreme King of Kings? Of Him nothing may be imagined, or postulated, or spoken of, neither justice nor mercy, neither wrath nor anger, neither change nor limit, nor process nor any quality whatsoever, neither then before emanation took place nor now after the process of emanation. However, this one should know: at first the En Soph caused to emerge ten ethereal emanations, the Sephiroth, in the form of thoughts which were of His essence, united with Him and forming a unity. These Sephiroth are the souls of which the ten Sephiroth mentioned by name are the garments. These are the instruments of the prior essence, and to these apply justice, mercy and the other attributes which cannot be applied to the En Soph.


Spain forever altered Europe and the world in 1492. By sending Columbus on the voyage that inaugurated the age of exploration, Spain turned the face of Europe westward, and by expelling all Jews from the country in the same year, it unintentionally turned mystical students of the Kabbalah towards the East. Joseph Karo, a child of the Spanish Exile who became a renowned Talmudic scholar and respected legal thinker in Constantinople, practised profound contemplation. Finding himself irresistibly drawn to Palestine, he settled in Safed in 1536. Safed was the traditional burial site of Simeon ben Jochai, who first put the Kabbalah in writing and whose doctrines were recorded in the Zohar. Karo became Safed's chief rabbi, gathered a group of disciples around him, and taught the metaphysical doctrines of the Kabbalah, together with an ethical way of life based on daily meditation. He prepared the soil in which the Zohar could bring forth new fruit, and his foremost disciple, Moses Cordovero, became the first prominent post-Exilic harvester of the Kabbalah.

Moses ben Jacob Cordovero was born in 1522. Although his place of birth is unknown – some say it was Safed – his name points to Spanish ancestry. He was in Safed from an early age, and his studies equipped him to join Karo's group at its inception. Karo showed him the 'revealed things', including the Bible and the Talmud, as well as the potency of meditation. Cordovero's brother-in-law, Solomon Alkabez, author of Lekha Dodi, the Sabbath hymn to Shekinah, taught him the 'hidden things' which encompass the Kabbalah. Cordovero also studied the medieval philosophers, from whom he gained a gift for systematization and a strong reinforcement of his innate abhorrence of anthropomorphic notions of Deity. Those of Karo's disciples who accepted Alkabez as a second teacher formed a mystic brotherhood dedicated to study and piety. Cordovero set down a list of moral rules for the chaverim (associates) which enjoined them to make their hearts the abode of Shekinah, the Divine Presence, through mental purification. They were to abjure evil thoughts and words, speak only the truth, act in a kindly manner towards all creatures, privately review their shortcomings each day and practise charity.

After the community of disciples developed moral and intellectual cohesion, Cordovero turned his attention to elaborating the mystical and ethical implications of the Kabbalah. By the age of twenty-seven he had written Pardes Rimmonim (Orchard of Pomegranates), a comprehensive exposition of the Kabbalah in terms of thirteen gates which are thresholds of states of consciousness, a 'Jacob's ladder' between mundane existence and self-conscious immortality. Within another decade he had finished the Elimah Rabbathi (The Great Work of 'to Elim'), a second exposition of Kabbalistic doctrines based upon Exodus XV, 27: "And they came to Elim, where were twelve springs of water, and threescore and ten palm-trees; and they encamped there by the waters." During the next few years he wrote a number of shorter works, including Shi'ur Komah (Measurement of Height) on the sephiroth and 'Or Ne'erabh (Pleasant Light), a defence of Kabbalistic studies. He composed a complete commentary on the entire Zohar, a work which survives only in manuscript form, together with some twenty of his treatises, and the Sepher Gerushim (Book of Banishments). Alkabez and Cordovero often went on excursions to the legendary tombs of ancient Kabbalists near Safed and participated in philosophical and mystical dialogues. These pilgrimages were called gerushim (banishments) because the participants identified themselves with the exile of the Shekinah. The Book of Banishments is a record of these discussions. Cordovero's most popular treatise amongst Kabbalists and orthodox Jews alike is Tomer Devorah (The Palm-Tree of Deborah), the first sustained philosophical attempt to make the doctrine of the sephiroth the ethical foundation of thought and action. It was named after Judges IV, 5: "It was her custom to sit beneath the Palm-tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill-country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her for justice."

Although Cordovero did not travel far from Safed, his reputation spread to other centres of the Exile. Menahem de Fano, an Italian Kabbalist, became his student and arranged for his manuscripts to be published after his death. Late in Cordovero's life, Isaac Luria was drawn to Safed and studied under him for several months before he died. Though Luria was an original thinker and mystic in his own right, and though his system soon supplanted Cordovero's, Luria spoke of himself as Cordovero's student. Sometime after Isaiah Horovitz moved to Safed from Prague, he wrote to his son:

Three supremely great men lived here at the same time – our teachers, Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Moses Cordovero and Rabbi Isaac Luria, of blessed memory. They were very angels of the Lord of Hosts. Spiritual mentors from the academies of the prophets and the sages of the Mishnah appeared to them as well as Elijah, of blessed memory.

Moses Cordovero died in 1570, preceding Luria by three years, Karo by five and Alkabez by a decade. Many came to believe that Cordovero was the reincarnation of Eliezar, the faithful servant of Abraham. A pillar of fire was seen to appear before his bier, as if to signal the twilight of a brilliant age of mystical awakening, the influences of which were to be felt for centuries.

As a disciple of the Zohar, Cordovero brought his immense powers of philosophical contemplation to central issues of metaphysics. The Kabbalistic rejection of any literal meaning in anthropomorphic notions and terminology highlighted the basic question: What is the relationship between Deity and the world? This query led naturally to two further questions. What is the nature of Deity and what can be known about It? If Man is made in the image of God, what does it mean to live up to that image? Cordovero fearlessly tackled these questions with the conviction that the ultimate unity of the Divine does not compel ascription of any personal characteristics in order to affirm an intimate link between the Unconditioned and the conditioned, the Infinite and the finite. For him, Deity is absolutely transcendent and unknowable, En Soph ('without limit'), beyond any possible conception. The ten sephiroth, noumenal centres of creative energy, constitute the veiling face of Deity, the activity of the Divine which gives rise to the world.

Several Kabbalists had already suggested that Shekinah, the Divine Presence, signified this activity in the lowest sephira malkuth, the kingdom. They saw in the process of emanation an unfolding from within without. In this view, each of the sephiroth contains the others within itself. The interior logic of emanation, however, requires a hierarchical development in metaphysical time, so that hokhmah in kether is the cause of the sephira hokhmah (Wisdom), just as binah in hokhmah is the cause of the sephira binah (Intelligence). Each sephira may contain its own universe which is not part of the descending order of worlds that constitutes the cosmos known to human beings. Cordovero accepted this view and elaborated it in terms of metaphysical causality as well as symbolic interconnections between the sephiroth. Metaphysically, within each sephira, behinot (aspects) can be differentiated, and each behina stands in causal relation to the corresponding behina of other sephiroth. Although the behinot of each sephira are infinite in number and largely unknown, six aspects are essential to the metaphysically atemporal progression of the sephiroth, and therefore to progressive awakenings of self-transcending consciousness through the ladder of the sephiroth. For any sephira there is its concealed aspect in the next higher sephira which is to emanate it; there is the unveiled aspect, like a seed, still in the higher sephira; a third aspect is that which gives the sephira its spiritual locus and, therefore, is its independent manifestation; another behina permits the emanated sephira to be a potential emanator in its turn; the fifth aspect allows that sephira to emanate a further sephira; and the sixth is the process of emanation itself.

Cordovero's discussion of the cycle of behinot led him to conclude that each sephira is causally dependent upon the sephira prior to it. Since each sephira contains an infinite number of behinot, it communes with the other sephiroth not by somehow reaching across metaphysical space (an unphilosophical, anthropomorphic metaphor), but by "descending into itself". Any aspect awakened through the inward turning of a sephira on itself resonates with the corresponding aspects in the other sephiroth. The individual who enters mystic consciousness awakens these aspects in his mind, raising consciousness through the sephiroth to the indescribable threshold of En Soph – and beyond. The gulf between En Soph and kether is as great as that between the unlimited and the constricted, the unknowable and the knowable, and yet the logic of the behinot suggests that the ultimate concealed aspects of the sephiroth abide in En Soph. Earlier Kabbalists had spoken of the zahzahot, splendours, three supernal formless lights that precede the appearance of the sephiroth as a kind of film of triadic creativity veiling the absolute Nothingness of En Soph. For Cordovero, the zahzahot are the three highest aspects of kether concealed in the Unknowable Itself. The man of meditation, moving through the infinite aspects, approaches ever more closely the Absolute without ever reaching it. Whilst Isaac Luria focussed attention on zimzum (contraction) and the doctrine of tikkun (restoration), Cordovero concentrated on behinot and the utterly transcendental link between En Soph and the sephiroth, accessible only to the highest mystical intuition. Luria saw the importance of setting Man right with the cosmos, and Cordovero looked to the need to participate in imitatio Dei.

For those whose consciousness is neither sufficiently purified nor so one-pointed as to permit direct insight into this mystery, Cordovero suggested two symbolic ways of grasping the interconnectedness amongst the sephiroth. Just as each sephira sheds its light on the one below it, one can imagine some of the transmitted light being reflected back up the chain of sephiroth even from the lowest to the highest. Since the sephiroth are light as well as sound and number, the universe is ultimately light, and all consciousness is of the same substance. Purification of mind is the initial step towards reflecting consciousness back up through the Ladder of Lights. Secondly, since each sephira stands in specific numerical relationship to each of the others, there are channels between them. One-pointed consciousness directed by the cleansed will can use these channels towards the same end. Luria concerned himself with the unclogging of these channels (Kabbalistic psychology), and Cordovero outlined their practical use (Kabbalistic ethics).

Continuity and one-pointedness of consciousness cannot be separated from refinement of conduct for Cordovero, because the former alone does not guarantee attainment of devekut, mystical union with Deity. Since the sephiroth are intelligent, the entire array of forces which constitute the cosmos are intelligences. When consciousness activates certain aspects of the sephiroth, the intelligent host involved will be revealed by its impress on the commensurate level of the ubiquitous invisible ether. Thus, in the practice of descending into oneself one will come to have visions of angels. Without purity of mind and heart nurtured through right conduct, one will fail to attain devekut and will get side-tracked into marvellous but spiritually derivative worlds. One will gain magical powers, but these can never be the goal of the individual who would cleave to God. For Cordovero, the therapy of spiritual astrology can help keep one oriented amidst forces that the pilgrim soul will encounter. But just as the divine will brought the world out of nothing (En Soph), so the human will must be trained to move towards its original Source.

Man, the Torah teaches, is made in the image of God. Since En Soph is nameless and formless, indescribable and beyond all possible knowledge, the divine reality of which Man is the image must be the sephiroth. An image may be tarnished, cracked and even shattered. Cordovero's ethics, as set forth in The Palm-Tree of Deborah, are designed to illumine the process of perfecting the image of the Divine. In so doing, however, man also rights the imbalances in Nature and the cosmos, so that the necessary reciprocity between the archetypal sephiroth and the sephiroth in Man becomes the means for self-consciously perfecting the universe. For Cordovero, the spiritual life is the imitation of God, and all other possible lives are empty shells, partly living and mostly dead, mere fragments of what should be, pitiful shadows cast by the luminous sephiroth on the darkness of chaos.

The Palm-Tree of Deborah set out what each human being should be in terms of Adam Kadmon, the Supernal Man who, when perfected, is the image of Deity. By imitating God, one helps to restore the perfection of Adam Kadmon, and thus manifests the Divine Immanence in oneself and in the world. Cordovero begins by discussing the thirteen attributes of compassion in kether, the first of which is the fact that the divine Afflatus radiates even upon the human being who turns against Deity. If this were not so, the wrongdoer would cease to exist. Tolerance is a degree of compassion, for each wrong done can be righted. Nonetheless, to sin is to create a demon, an elemental intelligence, which can be purged only by true repentance, the conscious rectification of the will to sin in that direction. One should love one's neighbour as oneself, for in terms of sephirothic connections, one's neighbour cannot be separated from others. Mercy should be shown all human beings by overlooking their faults, forgiving their weaknesses and appealing to their strengths. No notion of retribution should enter one's mind, for such ideas mistakenly suppose that good and evil are measurable quantities of the same substance. They are not.

For the desert of sin is from the portion of Hell, from that which is despicable. And the reward of good deeds is from the esteemed glory of the Shekinah. How then can these be deducted from those?

Light does not counterbalance darkness: light annihilates it. Even when another's wrong cannot be justified, excused or overlooked, one should not cast him out of one's heart. One should recall that at least as a babe, the offending individual did not do wrong. "In this way no man will be found an unworthy recipient of goodness nor unworthy to be prayed for and to have mercy shown him."

The compassion of kether has, as its corollary, humility, which is practised through banishing strange or negative thoughts and all hardness from one 's mind, hearing only good, gazing at nothing ugly, restraining anger, being cheerful in countenance and speaking well of all that is holy.

The first quality of the Crown is that it considers itself as nought before the One from Whom it emanates. So, too, a man should consider himself as actually nothing.

By reducing oneself to a zero, one will be open to spiritual illumination and to loving all beings. This is because hokhmah, wisdom, has one face turned towards kether, the Crown, and one towards the sephiroth below itself. Following wisdom, one "should pour out to each man, according to the dimensions of his mind, the amount he can bear and that which is fit and proper for him". One should not give more, however, lest harm befall the recipient. Thus, the plant is raised to the animal and the animal to man, and so is man made divine. For the aspirant, binah, understanding, is summed up in repentance, for that involves both the recognition of imperfection and a turning towards wisdom. Public repentance only leads to the irrelevant complexities of self-dramatization. "Do not think that there is no hope for you because you belong to the evil side. This is false." Repentance roots one in the holy and gives one new life.

Chesed, love, is emulated when one so loves the Divine that one serves it whatever the requirements. One will be benevolent without effort and come to learn that healing the sick has dimensions far beyond physical therapy. This will allow one to exercise power, geburah, with restraint and for the good of all, so that fear is purged from it. Tiphereth, beauty, can become, for an individual who has exemplified the preceding qualities to some degree, a sense of proportion lightened by a sense of the sacred everywhere in the world. After beauty comes netzah, hod and yezod (endurance, majesty and foundation), each with applications for mental and physical conduct that flow from tiphereth. When an individual has trained himself to reflect these qualities, he moves in malkuth, the kingdom, in a kingly way, without fear, cowardice or disharmony. For him, malkuth is no longer only the world; rather it has become the lowest manifestation of the Divine as malkuth, the sovereignty. Unattached, free, an exile who knows his true home, such a human being increasingly instantiates Adam Kadmon. In him the world is perfected, and every breath he exhales helps to perfect all the intelligences of the cosmos. "This is a comprehensive method by which man can bind himself always to holiness so that the crown of the Shekinah nevermore departs from his head."

Moses Cordovero saw clearly the inseparability of the highest insights and the most mundane activities. He attempted to show a way to the Divine that rejects the literalism of unthinking belief and avoids the pitfalls of psychologizing or excuse-making. He warned in Or Ne'erabh against thinking that spiritual knowledge is too exalted to be pursued or that one is too prone to err to be worthy of the attempt. Maimonides had said that the Torah places on each human being the duty to know God. Cordovero added,

There can be no doubt concerning this, for how could one assume that the call to know means to believe in God's existence? . . . It is written 'to know'. This means specifically to attain knowledge, a comprehension of God in accordance with human intellectual capacity. . . . To serve Him properly we must know Him, that is, know His Sephiroth and how He directs them, and His unity with them.

Cordovero's insight that Deity is at once transcendent and immanent, En Soph and sephiroth, was reflected in his conviction that study and application, theory and practice, are fused in the spiritual life. His magic lay in his ability to transmit the most rigorous intellectual quest to a few disciples, even while touching the hearts of countless human beings who could not pursue the Kabbalah and thereby to affect them for more than three centuries.