Kabbalah in Print

The Study and Popularization of Jewish Mysticism in Early Modernity

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Andrea Gondos
  • New York: 
    State University of New York Press
    , October
     2020.
     256 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438479712.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The publication of the Zohar (1558–1560), the central work of the medieval Jewish mystical tradition, was a watershed in the history of Jewish thought. Kabbalah had been the preserve of an elite, and the publication of the Zohar was the subject of debate and controversy both before and after its publication. Opponents feared that its esoteric teachings would be misunderstood and misappropriated by the unlearned masses. By the end of the 16th century, interest in Kabbalah led to a need and demand for works that would mediate between learned and difficult works and an audience that had some knowledge of Hebrew and rabbinic literature.

Andrea Gondos’ Kabbalah in Print: The Study and Popularization of Jewish Mysticism in Early Modernity, is a study of the response to this popular interest. A study in the history of the book and intellectual history, Gondos discusses the dissemination of kabbalistic publications and popularization of kabbalistic concepts in central and eastern Europe. She also focuses attention on the contribution of those known as secondary intellectuals, or more recently, agents of culture. They were scholars who had received an excellent rabbinic education, but for a host of reasons did not ascend to the ranks of the intellectual elite and did not occupy the top ranks of the rabbinate. They earned a living in a variety of position—as preachers, rabbis of small communities, or other positions requiring significant rabbinic learning. They were ideally suited to be intellectual intermediaries between the works written for the elite and the semi-learned who were attracted to the newly published works of Kabbalah.

The second part of Gondos’ book concentrates on Rabbi Yissakhar Baer of Kremnets, author of four books that contributed to the popularization of the Zohar and its teachings. Very little is known about his life beyond the publication dates of his books. He served as rabbi in the community of Kremnets, but the details are not known. It is not unusual in this period for biographical details of even important rabbis not to be preserved. An indicator used by modern scholars to evaluate the contemporary influence or reputation of early modern rabbinic authors are the approbations to their works. We find that Rabbi Yissakhar Baer was known and respected by his contemporaries. He received approbations from major figures including Rabbi Menahem Azariah da Fano, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz and Gedaliah Cordovero the son and publisher of works by Rabbi Moses Cordovero, the major Safed kabbalist. Rabbi Yissakhar Baer was also the recipient of a series of letters by his friend Rabbi Shloimel Dresnitz from Safed, which described the role of Rabbi Isaac Luria and created his legend when they were published in 1629.

Rabbi Yissakhar Baer published four small books in Prague between 1609 and 1610 at the press of Moshe ben Bezalel Katz. He mentions having composed a larger commentary on the Zohar that he could not publish, probably because he could not raise the funds to subsidize the publication of a large work. The manuscript has not survived. The first book he published, Pithe Yah, was a digest of Moshe Cordovero’s Pardes Rimmonim. Two abridgments of this kabbalistic classic were published in the previous decade. Yissakhar Baer’s digest was a simplified explanation of Cordovero’s main ideas and was aimed at a more popular audience than the previous abridgments, with little or no knowledge of kabbalistic concepts.

The next three books share a common purpose in Gondos’ work—to introduce and explicate the Zohar and its teachings for a popular audience. The first of these books, Yesh Sakhar, was devoted to the kabbalistic reasons for some of the Biblical commandments found in the Zohar. Each commandment discussed has a three-part structure. The commandment is summarized, followed by a Zoharic text relating to the commandment and concluding with Yissakhar Baer’s commentary that explains its mystical significance. The second book, Imre Binah, was a lexicon of difficult words found in the Zohar. The last book, Meqor Hokhmah, was an anthology that explained selected terms from the Torah through brief explanatory paragraphs taken from the Zohar.

Kabbalah in Print is an important study of several aspects of early modern Ashkenazi culture. Rabbi Yissakhar Baer was a significant agent of culture and member of the secondary intelligentsia, two groups that have begun to receive scholarly attention only in recent years. It is also an important contribution to our understanding of the popularization and dissemination of kabbalistic teachings and practices in the first half of the 17th century in Central and Eastern Europe. Well written and elegantly argued, it is a work that deserves a place in every collection devoted to early modern Ashkenazi society.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Morris M. Faierstein is Research Associate at the University of Maryland.

Date of Review: 
April 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrea Gondos is Emmy Noether Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Jewish Studies at Free University Berlin, Germany. She is the coeditor (with Daniel Maoz) of From Antiquity to the Postmodern World: Contemporary Jewish Studies in Canada.

Keywords: 

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