CORDOVERO, MOSHEH (1522–1570), Jewish mystic of Safad. Mosheh Cordovero is among the most prominent individuals in the history of Qabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. The likelihood is that Cordovero was born in Safad, a small Galilean city north of Tiberias in Israel where an important renaissance of Jewish mysticism occurred in the sixteenth century. From his name it appears that his family was Spanish in origin.
Cordovero studied rabbinic law with the outstanding legal authority Yosef Karo (1488–1575), but it is in the sphere of Qabbalah that he attained widespread fame as a teacher and author. His master in qabbalistic studies was his brother-in-law Solomon Alkabetz. It appears, however, that a reversal of roles took place and pupil became teacher. Cordovero quickly succeeded in becoming the principal master of esoteric studies in Safad. His disciples included most of the great mystics of that city: Eliyyahu de Vidas, Avraham Galante, Hayyim Vital, Avraham ben Eliʿezer ha-Levi Berukhim, Elʿazar Azikri, Shemuʾel Gallico, and, for a short while, Isaac Luria.
Cordovero was a highly prolific writer; his most important works include Pardes rimmonim, Ellimah rabbati, and Or yaqar, a massive commentary on the classic text of thirteenth-century Qabbalah, the Zohar. Cordovero's major literary contribution was his construction of a highly systematic synthesis of qabbalistic ideas: he may be considered the foremost systematizer of qabbalistic thinking.
At the same time, however, Cordovero addressed creatively the theoretical problems raised by qabbalistic theology and speculation. For example, one central theoretical issue in the qabbalistic system concerns the nature of the relationship between the aspect of the godhead that is utterly concealed and beyond human comprehension. Ein Sof ("the infinite"), and the ten qualities of divine being that emanate from within the depths of Ein Sof, known as the sefirot ("divine radiances"). Are the sefirot of the same "substance" as Ein Sof, which is, after all, the source of their existence, or are they separate and differentiated from Ein Sof? Cordovero offered a compromise: the sefirot should be conceived as both separate from Ein Sof as well as possessing substantive identification with it. Whereas from the divine point of view Ein Sof embraces all reality, from the human perspective the sefirot are perceived as lower stages, constituting a secondary reality that has an existence separate from Ein Sof.
Besides being a subtle and master theoretician of Qabbalah, Cordovero was a spiritual mentor, as evidenced by the rules of piety that he established for his disciples. Testimony is also preserved concerning his experiences of automatic speech, which he had when he and Alkabets would wander among the gravesites of departed teachers. It was on these occasions that he and Alkabetz would, in the manner of sudden motor automatism, utter qabbalistic mysteries and words of esoteric knowledge.
A valuable full-length study of Mosheh Cordovero's speculative system is Yosef Ben Shlomo's Torat ha-Elohut shel R. Mosheh Cordovero (Jerusalem, 1965). Useful information on Cordovero can be found in Gershom Scholem's Kabbalah (New York, 1974), especially pages 401–404. An essay on Cordovero's doctrine of evil is Kalman Bland's "Neoplatonic and Gnostic Themes in R. Moses Cordovero's Doctrine of Evil," Bulletin of the Institute of Jewish Studies 3 (1975): 103–130. An excellent translation of a short but influential ethical treatise written by Cordovero is The Palm Tree of Deborah, translated and edited by Louis Jacobs (1960; New York, 1974). Cordovero's rules of mystical piety and ethics are found in my own Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety, The Beginning of Wisdom (New York, 1984).
Sack, Bracha. Kabbalah of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero (in Hebrew). Beʾer-Shevaʿ, Israel, 1995.
Lawrence Fine (1987)