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Kabbalah in Print: An Interview with the Author

“One main development in the study of Kabbalah in the age of print is the emphasis on pedagogical consideration concerning how Kabbalah should be taught, interpreted, and assimilated. The availability of kabbalistic ideas and teachings in printed texts rendered the role of a kabbalistic master secondary and emphasised the reader’s direct access to Jewish esoteric wisdom facilitating self-study. Jews who did not belong to elite rabbinic circles could build their own libraries of kabbalistic works, however limited or small, and study Kabbalah on their own or in the company of others.”

Agata Paluch [AP]: Andrea, you joined our Junior Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” (FU Berlin) as research associate in the summer of 2019. Can you talk a little about the research that you’ve been pursuing within our larger project?

Andrea Gondos [AG]: I have pursued two main research goals since I joined our research group in 2019. First, I have worked on systematically describing the content of Jewish magical recipe books and manuscripts of practical Kabbalah that are in our database. Second, I have begun writing a new monograph with a research focus on gender, the female body, and its regenerative properties which constituted preeminent concerns in practical kabbalistic and magical recipes and compilations. These recipe books belong primarily to the genre of practical Kabbalah and magic and were written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in geographically diverse regions of East-Central Europe. At the crossroads between intersecting epistemic fields, I am particularly interested in how these sources reflect a broader engagement with nascent scientific advancements in the area of pharmacology and medicine along with received traditions of earlier kabbalistic speculations to improve a woman’s physical and spiritual wellbeing. 

AP: Your book, “Kabbalah in Print: The Study and Popularization of Jewish Mysticism in Early Modernity” has recently been published (SUNY Press, 2020). Congratulations! What led you to studying this topic? What are the links, if any, between your current project and the subject of your recent book?

AG: My post-graduate work began with the study of the hermeneutic structure of the Zohar (The Book of Splendour), the preeminent work of medieval kabbalistic speculation, which formed the basis of my Master’s thesis. As my academic trajectory shifted from the Middle Ages to the early modern period, my doctoral research gradually became focused on the impact of print technology on the transmission of kabbalistic knowledge. In the Middle Ages, Kabbalah designated Jewish esoteric tradition that was disseminated in a controlled manner through manuscripts or oral teachings. The kabbalistic master in these situations authorised, sanctioned, and determined how secrets were revealed and taught and to whom. This transmission model underwent profound transformation in the sixteenth century when the Zohar along with other anonymous and authored treatises of kabbalistic classics, such as Sefer Yetzirah, Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, Recanati’s Commentary on the Torah, works of Gikatilla, and others began to be disseminated in print. The availability of kabbalistic ideas in print made Kabbalah available for the first time to uninitiated readers. The transformation of Kabbalah from an esoteric, guarded, and controlled esoteric system to an exoteric and more accessible epistemic tradition heralded a major milestone in the history of Judaism. 

The reorientation of my doctoral project on questions of book history and reading benefitted greatly from having been selected as a graduate student participant in the research workshop, “Reading across Cultures,” held at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University in 2009. This focused seminar, whose key note address was given by Prof. Ann Blair, opened up new ways of investigating knowledge organization and transmission, a methodological approach that I applied to Yissakhar Baer’s textual production. 

My current project both expands and complicates the arguments of my book. Turning to a cache of manuscripts of magical recipe books written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mostly in the Ashkenazi lands of East and Central Europe, has generated unexpected results and prompted new theoretical questions for the study of Kabbalah. These works were written at a time when printing was already widely used yet these authors opted for the manuscript format as the medium of choice for the organization of their practical and theoretical knowledge. They copied, recorded, reworked, and interpreted earlier kabbalistic traditions availing themselves of works already in print, manuscripts that they had access to, and oral traditions they received. There is no strict or clear demarcation among genres of esoterica in these recipe books, rather practical how-to recipes aimed at promoting healing and wellbeing are presented side-by-side complex theoretical treatises of Lurianic Kabbalah, Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim, and other kabbalistic systems.   

AP: In your book, you focus on the shifts that the growing importance of publishing books in print had on the shape of kabbalistic knowledge. Could you talk a bit more on the types of the printed material and its literary formats that your book tackles in detail? 

AG: The majority of the kabbalistic works produced in East-Central Europe in the early modern period were eclectic compilations, as Yaakov Elbaum noted decades ago. Academic scholarship in the study of Jewish mysticism, has to a large extent privileged originality in textual production and as a consequence of this tendency anthological works, digests, and study guides produced in the field of Kabbalah have been largely overlooked. Boaz Huss’s work on the reception history of the Zohar (Like Radiance of the Sky, Hebrew: 2008, English: 2016), has raised important questions regarding literary genres through which the Zohar was popularized. Zeev Gries’s scholarly monograph on conduct literature (Sifrut ha-Hanhagot, 1989), has offered new insights into the agency of print that facilitated the broader circulation of mystical ideas and their influence on religious observance and praxis. Through a close examination of an early seventeenth century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yissakhar Baer, and his printed works, I aimed to expose the literary, pedagogic, and conceptual strategies authors used as they synthesised and reorganized earlier works of Jewish mysticism to mediate between elite and popular culture. Yissakhar Baer’s four works – an abridgement, a halakhic reference tool, an anthology, and a lexicon – provide a unique vantage point to assess the relationship among the literary modalities of genre, form, and content in his repackaging of Jewish esoteric knowledge and lore.

AP: You also point to continuities between medieval and early modern, Christian and Jewish modes of studying and reading learned texts. What, in your opinion, is different in Jewish modes of the organization of textual knowledge in early modernity in comparison to the earlier periods?

AG: One main development in the study of Kabbalah in the age of print is the emphasis on pedagogical consideration concerning how Kabbalah should be taught, interpreted, and assimilated. The availability of kabbalistic ideas and teachings in printed texts rendered the role of a kabbalistic master secondary and emphasised the reader’s direct access to Jewish esoteric wisdom facilitating self-study. Jews who did not belong to elite rabbinic circles could build their own libraries of kabbalistic works, however limited or small, and study Kabbalah on their own or in the company of others. The emergence of study guides to Kabbalah in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, such as Moses Cordovero’s Or Ne’erav, underlines a shifting cultural reality in which new readers of Kabbalah required improved resources to learn.   

Furthermore, beginning with the late fifteenth century, Kabbalah came to represent an  important repository of ancient knowledge (prisca theologia) for learned Christian humanists, who invested great resources to acquire kabbalistic books and secure access to their teachings. Wealthy Christian scholars, such as the German-born Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) and his revered Italian colleague, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), engaged not only outstanding Jewish scholars of their generation but also possessed the financial means to acquire a substantial portion of the extant kabbalistic literature in Hebrew and Latin translation, which further aided their study and knowledge of these texts. Kabbalah formed a cultural bridge between learned Jewish and Christian circles and kabbalistic study guides played a pivotal role in this dialogue.  

The inclusion of Yissachar Baer’s lexicon to the Zohar, Imrei Binah, in the bottom margins of the Sulzbach edition of Zohar (1684), a collaborative effort between Jews and Christian Hebraists at the court of Christian August, foregrounds the cultural and didactic value of kabbalistic study guides. 

AP: Your research has so far concentrated on the Ashkenazi, mostly Central European area. Do you consider the general conclusions of your book—for instance, on the deep impact of study guides on the popularisation of specific kabbalistic systems of thought and practice—applicable also to other Jewish cultural zones?

AG: As I show in Chapter 1 of my book, Italy played a pivotal role in the circulation and popularization of Kabbalah especially in the sixteenth but also in the seventeenth centuries. Vibrant intellectual networks of Kabbalists between Italy and Safed ensured the persistent flow of rabbis, who already possessed some erudition in kabbalistic ideas and teachings, but wished to upgrade and expand their learning through discipleship with one of the renowned kabbalists of Safed. The two great schools of Safed Kabbalah, the Cordoverean and the Lurianic, produced in turn their own graduates who returned to Italy carrying in their trunks not only original manuscripts from Safed, but also their own notebooks with the purpose of consolidating them, using them as pedagogical tools, but also offering them to Italian presses for print. As kabbalist, collector, emendator, and educator, the intellectual activity of Rabbi Azariah da Fano (1548-1620) opens a window into the dissemination of Safedian Kabbalah and the construction of what constituted the authentic and authorised teachings of early modern kabbalistic knowledge. Thus, when following the death of his father, R. Gedalyah Cordovero preferred to print some of his father’s works at the Italian presses, whose reputation for quality far surpassed their rivals in Salonica and Constantinople, it was Rabbi Azariah da Fano who provided the young man with the necessary financial and logistical support. A wealthy person belonging to the rabbinic elite, Azariah da Fano had access both to financial resources and intellectual acumen to prioritize the study of Kabbalah; synthesize the ideas of its two main sixteenth–century theoreticians, Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria; and build a library of printed and manuscript works as part of a new study program that aimed to disseminate authentic and authoritative Kabbalah more widely.    

AP: You insightfully introduce your reader to the world of the so-called secondary elites through the lens of kabbalistic books they published and read. Could you share some of your thoughts on how the processes of book production and consumption affected the contemporary perception of kabbalistic texts that were studied most widely in early modern Ashkenaz?

Following the printing of a large number of kabbalistic works in the sixteenth century, study and absorption of this material unfolded along two trajectories: a direct and an indirect (or mediated) path. Jewish social elites, who had both the intellectual and the economic acumen to pursue full-time and in-depth study of Kabbalah turned to direct study of the classical sources accessed through manuscripts and printed works  frequently augmented their learning with the oral explication of a kabbalistic master. By contrast, other segments of Jewish learned society, the secondary elites, who displayed competence in all aspects of the traditional rabbinic curriculum, Tanakh, Mishnah, and Talmud, but were forced to eke out a living by serving as beadles, teachers, itinerant preachers, and healers, lacked both the time and the financial resources required to engage Kabbalah full time and with the assistance of a qualified teacher. This social class acquired kabbalistic teachings primarily in an indirect manner mediated through printed works and occasionally, when the opportunity arose, with a qualified master. With the diffusion and broader circulation of printed works of Kabbalah and the increased cultural prestige associated with this body of knowledge, secondary elites recognized a unique opportunity for creating a new cultural product that mediated between the kabbalistic corpora and a new community of readers. Members of this secondary elite simplified complex ideas and produced digests and study guides in order to enhance the practical dimensions of daily ritual life. Unlike the traditional rabbinic elite, who took a conservative position to what they defined as authoritative and legitimate sources of Jewish knowledge, the secondary elites proposed a new cultural agenda that emphasized people’s right “to choose whether to learn, what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it” (Rosman, 2002, 532).

David Darshan (born c. 1520), a sixteenth-century educator and preacher exemplified both the social constraints secondary elites faced in East-Central Europe at this time and the innovative educational opportunities they sought to create in order to secure permanent positions for themselves within the Jewish communal hierarchy. He received formal rabbinic training from the yeshiva of Rabbi Moses Isserles in Cracow, one of the most prestigious rabbinic institutions in Poland at the time. Against his will, he was not permitted to complete his studies and thus had to abandon the hope of securing a permanent rabbinical posting. He nonetheless acquired a profound regard for books, which he began to collect at the age of nineteen and of which he proudly accumulated more than four hundred by the end of his life. His profession as an itinerant preacher connected him not only with new lands but also with new intellectual ideas, products, and institutions. With a keen eye for new educational opportunities he conceived opening a bet midrash in 1571 in his native Cracow, which may have been modelled on a similar institution he managed in Ferrara (Italy). David’s bet midrash was conceptualized to rest on three basic pillars: 1) complete accessibility for the general public; 2) the focus on books as a source of knowledge; and 3) his role as an educational resource to be consulted by the student when necessary. In serving the “simple folk,” David clearly recognized the universal drive of his generation for more knowledge than what the traditional Ashkenazi model of learning was prepared to offer to the non-elite masses: “And there is not enough time [for a person] to study Torah, in order to know the commandments thoroughly. Occasionally, he has the time but no book, while at other times he has the book, but no understanding. Thus when he enters the bet midrash his deficiency, whatever it may be, will be supplied” (Rosman, 536-7). In offering his four hundred books as primary resource in the bet midrash, David proposes to elevate the status of the printed book, which unlike a teacher in an elite yeshivah, can be freely and directly consulted by the reader.

Engaging the medium of writing and authorship, he composed Shir ha-Ma’alot le-David (Cracow, 1571) as a literary vehicle to advertise his numerous talents and skills. As a prolific author, he composed works with an explicit pedagogical objective including a guide for writing letters and a textbook to aid the memorization of the 613 commandments of the Torah. Lacking sufficient funds to print works, he included a sample of them in Shir ha-Ma’alot. David was a cultural innovator, who understood his role in the technological transformation that was unfolding in the society around him and decided to respond creatively by proposing concrete practical strategies to bring learning to those who did not have the means to pursue education in adulthood. His failure to secure a wealthy supporter for his educational reforms illustrates the resistance secondary elites faced in Ashkenazi society as their popularizing strategies ultimately came up against the cultural, institutional, and economic hegemony of ruling rabbinic elites.

AP: Finally, could you expand a little on your views about the role of ‘cultural agents’, such as Yissakhar Baer, the main protagonist of your book, in reorganising the kabbalistic knowledge of the time? Is his rather revolutionary role inextricably bound with, or even dependent on the expansion of print as the new medium for dissemination of knowledge? How deeply, according to your knowledge, was Yissakhar Baer involved in the working of the printing presses with which his works were published?

AG: Yes, I regard the role of secondary agents, such as Yissakhar Baer and others, as inextricably bound up with the proliferation of Kabbalah in print. As a technological and material innovation, print made broad dissemination of Jewish esoteric ideas possible and accessible through digests, anthologies, vernacular complications that could be produced at a significantly lower cost than manuscripts. The printing of the Zohar and other kabbalistic classics in the sixteenth century reflected a growing demand for the teachings of Kabbalah not only by larger segments of Jewish society but also by an emerging Christian readership. At the same time, printing could only partially open this corpus of esoteric knowledge with its idiosyncratic language, mythology, and religious symbolism. Yissakhar Baer and other secondary elites, who were by profession frequently associated with the field of education, seized this unique cultural opportunity to develop literary and conceptual solutions that helped readers navigate the challenges of these texts. The reorganisation of  kabbalistic language and speculation into learning tools and educational guides underscored the transition from high to low culture in which the role of secondary elites, like Yissakhar Baer, became  accentuated. 

Indeed, I am convinced that Yissakhar Baer was closely involved with the printing of his works and was held responsible to financially contribute, at least in part, to the production process. In the introduction to his book, Yesh Sakhar, he laments that economic considerations forced him to abandon the printing of his extensive commentary on the Zohar, Yod’ei Binah: “Because of the enormity of the expenses required of me at this time for the printing (of this manuscript), I have withdrawn, for the time being, from publishing my commentary on the Zohar that I called, Yod’ei Binah, as is known, until the time that God expands my means for behold I have ‘learned the lesson,’ distress has taught me and found my aid against the foe.” It it clear from Yissakhar Baer’s words that while he was able to oversee and perhaps financially support the printing of the shorter publication, his more voluminous composition required more funds that at the time was not at his disposal. In the end, this work disappeared or perhaps still awaits discovery in manuscript at one of the Eastern European library archives …    

Photo credit: Andrea Gondos

Cite this blog post
dwarmuth (2021, April 18). Kabbalah in Print: An Interview with the Author. Knowledge in Circulation. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

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