Vital, Ḥayyim ben Joseph

views updated


VITAL, ḤAYYIM BEN JOSEPH (1542–1620), one of the greatest kabbalists. Vital was born in Ereẓ Israel, apparently in Safed. His father, Joseph Vital Calabrese, whose name indicates his origin from Calabria, South Italy, was a well-known scribe in Safed (see responsa of Menahem Azariah da *Fano, no. 38). His son is also called Ḥayyim Calabrese in several kabbalistic works. Ḥayyim Vital studied in yeshivot in Safed, especially under Moses *Alshekh, his teacher in exoteric subjects. In 1564 he began to study Kabbalah, at first according to the system of Moses *Cordovero, although Vital did not call Cordovero his teacher. He was also attracted to other esoteric studies and spent two years (1563–65) in the practice of*alchemy, which he later regretted. After Isaac *Luria's arrival in Safed, Vital became his principal disciple, studying under him for nearly two years until Luria's death in the summer of 1572. Later he began to arrange Luria's teachings in written form and to elaborate on them according to his own understanding of them. Vital tried to prevent Luria's other disciples from presenting their versions of his doctrine in writing, and he gathered around him several who accepted his spiritual authority. But he did not entirely succeed in his ambition to be the only heir to Luria's spiritual legacy and to be accepted as the sole interpreter of Lurianic Kabbalah. In 1575, 12 of Luria's disciples signed a pledge to study Luria's theory only from Vital, and promising not to induce him to reveal more than he wished and to keep the mysteries secret from others (Zion, 5 (1940), 125, and see another copy of the agreement in Birkat-ha-Areẓ by Baruch David ha-Kohen (1904), 61). This study group ceased to function when Vital moved to Jerusalem, where he served as rabbi and head of a yeshivah from late 1577 to late 1585. In Jerusalem he wrote the last version of his presentation of the Lurianic system. He returned to Safed early in 1586, staying there until 1592. According to tradition, he fell seriously ill in Safed around 1587; during his long period of unconsciousness the scholars of Safed are said to have bribed his younger brother Moses, who allowed them to copy 600 pages of Ḥayyim Vital's writings which were then circulated among a select group (according to a letter written by Shlomel Dreznitz in 1606, in Shivḥei ha-Ari).

In 1590 Vital was "ordained" as rabbi by his teacher Moses Alshekh. (The text of the ordination is published in Sefer Yovel le-Y. Baer (1961), 266.) He was in Jerusalem once more in 1593 and perhaps stayed there several years, returning to Safed from time to time. According to the tradition of the rabbis of Jerusalem, he moved from Jerusalem to Damascus; in any case, he was in Damascus in 1598 (Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot (1954), 87) and remained there until his death. For a time he served as rabbi of the Sicilian community there (ibid., 92, 116). After a severe illness in 1604, his sight was impaired and at times he was even blind. During his final years a kabbalistic group gathered around him. Vital was married at least three times and his youngest son, Samuel, inherited his writings. While he was in Damascus, mainly between 1609 and 1612, Ḥayyim Vital assembled autobiographical notes which he called Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot, mainly stories and testimonies to his greatness, but also including his dreams and those of others; these form an important source for the study of the course of his life and the complexities of his soul. The work is preserved in his handwriting and was published by A.Z. Aešcoly (1954), from the autograph in the possession of Rabbi A. Toaff of Leghorn. From this work it is apparent that strained relations existed between Vital and Jacob Abulafia, one of the rabbis in Damascus, who doubted Vital's claims to be the sole interpreter of Lurianic Kabbalah. The early editions of Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot were published from fragmentary and corrupt copies, in Ostrog (1826) as Shivḥei R. Ḥayyim Vital, and in Jerusalem (1866) as Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot. Vital's epitaph was published in David Zion Laniado's La-Kedoshim Asher be-Areẓ (1935), 43. Besides his son, his other disciples in Damascus included Japheth ha-Miẓri, *Ḥayyim b. Abraham ha-Kohen of Aleppo, and Ephraim Penzieri. Many legends about Vital circulated even during his lifetime, and are preserved in Toledot ha-Ari and in the letters of Shlomel Dreznitz, first published in 1629 in Ta'alumot Ḥokhmah by Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo. In subsequent generations many other legends were added.

Vital was a prolific writer. His proficiency in exoteric subjects is attested by his ordination and by his rabbinical function in Jerusalem. However, few of his talmudic teachings have been preserved: one responsum from Damascus was published in the responsa of Joseph di *Trani (Constantinople, 1641 ed., 88c.) and ten halakhic responsa are included in Samuel Vital's Be'er Mayim Ḥayyim (Ms. Oxford Neubauer Cat Bod no. 832). His commentaries on the Talmud are extant, together with those of his son (in Ms. Guenzburg 283) and have been published at the end of every tractate of the El ha-Mekorot Talmud, appearing in Jerusalem since 1959. A complete volume of his sermons on esoteric subjects and popular Kabbalah is preserved in Torat Ḥayyim (unpublished Ms. in the written list of the collection of R. Alter of Gur, no. 286) and several of his sermons can also be found in Badhab Mss. collection 205, now in the Hebrew University, and in Columbia University (Ms. H533, foll. 150ff., New York). His Sefer ha-Tekhunah on astronomy was published in Jerusalem in 1866. His own manuscript of his major work on practical Kabbalah and alchemy was extant in the Musayoff collection in Jerusalem in 1940.

According to his son, Vital assembled his major writings into two vast works Eẓ ha-Ḥayyim and Eẓ ha-Da'at. The former is the inclusive name for all those writings in which he elaborated on the teaching of Isaac Luria. These works went through several versions and adaptations, for Vital began to arrange what he had heard from Luria immediately after his death, and, according to Meir *Poppers, remained absorbed in this task for more than 20 years. This first edition of Eẓ ha-Hayyim was organized into eight sections, called "gates" (she'arim in Hebrew). "Gate" one contains everything in Luria's own handwriting that Vital could find; no published version of this "gate" exists but it was preserved in several manuscripts (see G. Scholem, in: ks, vol. 19 (1942–43), 184–96); "Gate" two, Sha'ar ha-Hakdamot, includes the doctrine of emanation and the creation of the world; in "Gate" three, Sha'ar Ma'amerei Rashbi ve-Razal, Vital's commentaries on the *Zohar and on talmudic tractates according to Lurianic principles are arranged; "Gate" four, Sha'ar ha-Pesukim, contains commentaries on all parts of the Bible; "Gate" five, Sha'ar ha-Kavvanot, covers mystical customs and meditations on prayers; the reasons for the mitzvot according to the order of the sections of the Torah are set out in "Gate" six, Sha'ar ha-Mitzvot. "Gate" seven, Sha'ar Ru'aḥ ha-Kodesh, deals with meditation, customs, acts of magical contemplation (called "unification," yiḥudim), the tikkun of sins, and the principles of physiognomy; "Gate" eight, Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim, covers the doctrine concerning the soul and its transmigrations. The first version (mahadurah kamma) remained in Damascus with Vital's son, who did not permit it to be copied for many years. He himself reedited and rearranged the Shemonah She'arim and this version was widely circulated from around 1660. The Middle Eastern kabbalists, especially those in Palestine, considered this the most authoritative version of Lurianic Kabbalah, and some confined their studies to this version only. In Samuel Vital's version of the Shemonah She'arim the first "gate" was cut out and its contents dispersed throughout the rest of the work, mainly in the third "gate" which was then divided into two, Sha'ar Ma'amerei Rashbi (on the Zohar) and Sha'ar Ma'amerei Razal. For 200 years this edition circulated in manuscript form only, being copied by many scribes and kabbalists. Finally the work was printed in seven volumes in Jerusalem (1863–98) with the support of the kabbalists of the Bet-El yeshivah. A new and revised edition was published in Tel Aviv (1961–64). A magnificent manuscript written in large letters, which served as the paradigm for other copies, is preserved in the National Library in Jerusalem (4ø674, three folio vols.). So that it might have greater authority, this manuscript, which was actually written in the late 17th century, had false dates added to it to make it appear that it was copied in Aleppo and Damascus in 1605.

The copies of Ḥayyim Vital's works which circulated during his lifetime among the kabbalists in Palestine were not arranged in good order. Around 1620 Benjamin ha-Levi and Elisha Vestali (or Gastali) assembled them into a three-volume edition. This, too, was not printed but was very popular in subsequent generations. It included Sefer ha-Derushim, mainly composed of material belonging to Sha'ar ha-Hakdamot and Sha'ar ha-Gilgulim; Sefer ha-Kavvanot; and Sefer ha-Likkutim. Vital's writings first reached other countries in this edition, which is extant in several libraries. The torn and tattered pages of the "last version" (mahadurah batra) which Vital arranged in Jerusalem were discovered by Abraham *Azulai and his colleagues, apparently shortly after 1620, in a genizah in Jerusalem. From these writings Jacob *Ẓemah arranged several books, such as Oẓerot Ḥayyim (Korets, 1783), Adam Yashar (1885), and Olat Tamid on meditations in prayers (1850). Another version of Vital's system which corresponds to the Sha'ar ha-Hakdamot was discovered and published as Mevo She'arim or Toledot Adam. His grandson, Moses b. Samuel Vital, reports that he found the author's own manuscript in Hebron (Ms. British Museum, Margoliouth cmbm no. 821). Copies reached Italy in the middle of the 17th century, but it was first published in Korets in 1783. Parts of the beginning of the work are missing in both the printed and manuscript editions, but a complete version was still extant in Jerusalem in 1890, and was also preserved in the collection of Isaac Alter of Gur.

From all the previous editions that reached the Jerusalem kabbalists, Meir Poppers, the disciple of Ẓemaḥ, arranged the final edition of Vital's writings, which was completed (according to testimony in some of the copies) in 1653. All matters pertaining to the Sha'ar ha-Hakdamot were arranged in Sefer Derekh Eẓ Ḥayyim, in five major sections and 50 sub-sections including the "first version" and the "last version" and even at times other versions (third and fourth), side by side. This book alone was given the name of Sefer Eẓ Ḥayyim when it was published in Korets in 1782 by Isaac Satanov (of Moses *Mendelssohn's circle). The best editions are those published in Warsaw (1890) by Menahem Heilperin, and Tel Aviv (1960), by Y.Z. *Brandwein. Everything pertaining to matters of prayer and mystical meditations (kavvanot) was arranged in Sefer Peri Eẓ Ḥayyim in four sections: Kavvanot; the reasons for the mitzvot (Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot); Tikkunei Avonot; and Yiḥudim. The section on mystical meditations alone was published under the name Peri Eẓ Ḥayyim (Dubrovno, 1803). The book which was published earlier under this name in Korets in 1782, is not based on Poppers' edition but was a separate adaptation by his colleague Nathan Shapira called Me'orot Natan. The third and fourth sections were published together under the name Sha'ar ha-Yiḥudim and Tikkun Avonot in Korets in 1783. All material pertaining to other matters was arranged in Sefer Nof Eẓ Ḥayyim in four sections: Perushei ha-Zohar; Perushei Tanakh; Perushei Aggadot; and Gilgulim. A complete manuscript of this work is found in Oxford (Neubauer, Cat Bod no. 1700). The first section was never published in this form; the second section (which also included the ta'amei ha-mitzvot) was published as Likkutei Torah Nevi'im u-Khetuvim (Zolkiew, 1773); an incomplete version of the third section was published as Likkutei Shas (Korets, 1785); and the fourth section was published earlier than all Vital's other works as Sefer ha-Gilgulim (Frankfurt on the Main, 1684). A version in 70 chapters revised according to Nathan Shapira's version was published in Przemyśl in 1875. Hence it is clear that Vital's writings exercised their main influence on kabbalists through manuscript copies, despite the fact that all his works were later published several times. In a few places in Palestine, Turkey, Poland, and Germany, Vital's writings were copied wholesale. Sefer ha-Kavvanot (Venice, 1620) was merely an abridgment and adaptation of one of the copies which circulated in Palestine during Vital's lifetime. The major part of the first section on Perushei ha-Zohar was published as Zohar ha-Raki'a (Korets, 1785).

In all these works Vital's presentation is dry and matter of fact, quite unlike the flowery language common in his day. In one place in Sefer Eẓ Ḥayyim (39:16) he inserted an adaptation from Moses *Cordovero'sPardes Rimmonim without mentioning that it was not Luria's teaching. In most parts of the Shemonah She'arim Vital added statements from Luria's other disciples, mainly on matters which he himself did not hear directly, but he rarely mentions them by their full names. Vital was most exact in transmitting Luria's teachings, pointing out on many occasions that he could not remember exactly, or that he had heard different statements on different occasions, or that he had forgotten. It would seem that on first hearing them he recorded many statements in copybooks and notebooks which were occasionally cited. He also presents some statements of which he admits that he cannot recall their meaning. Indeed, his works include more than a few contradictions, some of which have their source in his teacher and others in the development of Vital's views while he was editing. These contradictions gave rise to a kind of "pilpul" literature on Vital's statements comprising many volumes.

Before his association with Luria, Vital wrote a commentary on the Zohar according to the system of Cordovero, to which he later added occasional remarks alluding to Luria's views. Discovering this commentary in Jerusalem, Abraham *Azulai inserted it in his compilation, Or ha-Ḥammah (1896–98). Vital's affinity to Cordovero's teaching can also be recognized in his second major work, Sefer Eẓ ha-Da'at, only parts of which are extant. It apparently included commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, but what he calls peshat ("the literal meaning") and remez ("the allegorical meaning") are in many cases Kabbalah, although closer to the literal meaning of the Zohar. According to one testimony, he began this work as early as 1563 at the age of 20, but according to another he wrote it in 1575. Chapters 2 and 6 of this work were preserved in his own handwriting in the collection of R. Alter of Gur (no. 185; dated 1575). His commentary on Psalms was published from this manuscript, Sefer Tehillim (1926). The part on the Torah was published as Eẓ ha-Da'at Tov (1864). The second part, including various eulogies, sermons for weddings, circumcisions, on repentance, and commentaries on Proverbs and Job, was published in Jerusalem in 1906 from a manuscript preserved in the kabbalistic yeshivah Bet-El. Vital himself arranged various editions of this work. In addition to these works, he also wrote moralizing tracts; the most important, Sha'arei Kedushah, was first published in Constantinople in 1734 and many times afterward. His work Lev David was published from his own manuscript by H.J.D. *Azulai (Leghorn, 1789) and several other times. It is assumed that in addition to these works Vital wrote many pamphlets on Kabbalah not included in the printed editions, such as Hakdamah Kodem Derush Mayim Nukvin quoted by his son and partly published in the introduction to Meir *Bikayam'sMe'ir la-Areẓ (Salonika, 1747). Of doubtful attribution is Goral Kodesh, on geomancy according to the Zodiac (Czernowitz, 1899). Arba Me'ot Shekel Kesef (Korets, 1804) is apparently an extract from Vital's known works with additional autobiographical remarks and allusions to other works but it is highly doubtful that Vital could have written them. The book purports to be written in 1615 but it cites names of later versions arranged by Benjamin ha-Levi and Ḥayyim Ẓemaḥ. It would seem that in fact it was written in the second half of the 17th century, and was known in Morocco in the early 18th century. A scroll containing descriptions of the celestial worlds of the Kabbalah written by Vital and brought from Damascus was found in Yemen, and in 1858 was sold to the traveler Jacob Saphir (Sefunot, 2 (1958), 270). Writings of Israel *Sarug, such as Limmudei Aẓilut and a commentary on Sifra di-Ẓeni'uta (1897), were erroneously attributed to Vital. Vital was also interested in early kabbalistic literature, although he hardly used it in his works. His anthology of early works was found in his own handwriting as late as 1930 in Tunis (Ms. Tanuji). His son Samuel's copy is preserved in manuscript in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Although he possessed no truly creative powers, Vital was one of the most important influences on the development of later Kabbalah, attaining this position as the chief formulator of the Kabbalah of Luria. No thorough study of his personality and activities has yet been attempted.


N. Shapira, Tuv ha-Areẓ, ed. by J. Hirschensohn (1891), appendix 23–25 (based on a complete manuscript of Mevo She'arim); G. Scholem, in: Zion, 5 (1940), 113–60; M. Benayahu, in; Sinai, 30 (1952), 65–75; idem, Sefer Toledot ha-Ari (1967), index; D. Tamer, in: Tarbiz, 25 (1956), 99f.

[Gershom Scholem]