People of the Book: Classics of the Jewish Tradition
by Dr. Henry Abramson
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s ‘Tomer Devorah’
“Even if you cannot find any reason to forgive a person, there was nevertheless once a time when this person did no wrong. Think of the good this person did as a child, recall the love that a mother has for a nursing babe, and you will not be able to hold back a measure of forgiveness and mercy” (from the 13th Level of Forgiveness).
A work of soaring genius, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah is one of the greatest expressions of human spirituality of the past millennium. Well-known to students of mussar and Jewish mysticism, this slim work (some 35 pages in the first printing) gained mass popularity when generous excerpts were included in the widely circulated 17th century Shnei Luchos ha-Bris by Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz (the Shelah ha-Kadosh). It has been printed dozens of times since then, including translations into English, Spanish, French, and German.
Rabbi Cordovero (also known as the Ramak, an acronym formed from his name) was one of the leading figures of the 16th-century Tsfat Circle, a remarkable assembly of Jewish spiritual giants who were responsible for an explosion of intellectual creativity that was as brief as it was powerful. A descendant of refugees from the Portuguese Expulsion of 1497, he studied with Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law) and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (author of the Lecha Dodi liturgical poem sung on Friday nights). Rabbi Cordovero’s principal activity was in the realm of Kabbalah, and he earned his scholarly reputation with the publication of PardesRimonim (“The Orchard of Pomegranates”), the first systematic analysis of Zoharic mysticism, as well as the massive Or Yakar (“The Precious Light”), a commentary of the Zohar itself. Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), then living in Egypt, migrated to Tsfat to study at his feet. Their time together was cut short by Rabbi Cordovero’s untimely passing, but the Arizal regarded the Ramak as his principal teacher ever after.
Tomer Devorah begins with a deceptively simple premise: given that Jews are required to emulate G‑dly behavior (following Devarim 28:9, “and you will walk in G‑d’s ways”), then we are first required to know something about G‑d. This is made possible, argues the Ramak, by studying the sefiros, the kabbalistic conduits through which G‑d infuses the universe with vivifying energy. TomerDevorah is therefore a brief overview of the sefiros themselves, and a discussion of their implications for human behavior. The sefirah of chesed, for example, occasions a discussion of some of the vehicles for human kindness (visiting the sick and so forth).
When people emulate G‑d’s behavior in terms of chesed, these acts elicit a greater flow of energy from the sefirah of chesed into the world as a whole. The most widely studied section of Tomer Devorah is the glorious first chapter, which looks at the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, describing the ways in which G‑d forgives the world, and in turn how we may learn to forgive others as well. Rabbi Cordovero’s work represents the beginning of a completely new genre of Jewish literature: Kabbalistic Mussar. Later works include Rabbi Chaim Vital’s ShaareiKedushah and Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas’s Reishis Chochmah. TomerDevorah stands alone, however, as a unique exception to the general ban on the study of Kabbalah for students under the age of 40. Endorsed enthusiastically by Lithuanian Mussar masters such as Rabbi Israel of Salant and by Hasidic leaders such as Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (the DivreiChaim), TomerDevorah is studied on a daily basis by many as a segulah for health and wellness, especially during the penitential season of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance. v
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.