People of the Book: Classics of the Jewish Tradition

People of the Book: Classics of the Jewish Tradition

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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

New Column in the Five Towns Jewish Times!

Please enjoy my first column in the Five Towns Jewish Times!

People of the Book: Classic Works of the Jewish TraditionAbramson-Letter

By Dr. Henry Abramson

According to my knowledge of the words of the Sages and the history of the Jewish people in general, we have never experienced such horrific suffering as has been visited upon us by the wicked ones since the end of 5702 (fall 1942)—may Hashem have mercy on us and rescue us immediately.

—Entry from January 11, 1943.

Discovered in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Aish Kodesh (Holy Fire) is one of the most remarkable works of Jewish spirituality to emerge from the Holocaust. A slim volume of some 150 pages in the first printing, Aish Kodeshpresents the Torah spoken at the clandestine seudahshlishis gatherings convened by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, known to his followers as the Piaseczno Rebbe.

The author, a scion of the Grodzhisk Chassidic dynasty, was a creative thinker whose literary fame was established with the 1932 publication of Chovas haTalmidim (The Students’ Obligation). Trapped in Warsaw when the war broke out, he lived through all its tragedies: the sealing of the ghetto in the fall of 1939, the horrific typhus plague of the winter of 1941, the massive deportations to Treblinka in the summer of 1942, and the heroic but doomed uprising of April 1943. He was ultimately deported to a labor camp and shot in November 1943, most probably for his involvement in a second attempted uprising. Unlike Holocaust memoirs, journals, or diaries, Aish Kodesh is a book that is sui generis for many reasons.

Aish Kodesh is a public document, representing the real-time efforts of the beleaguered Jewish community to deal with the theological implications of the Holocaust as it unfolded in the Warsaw Ghetto. The intellectual task of understanding the meaning of unimaginable suffering was common to both Orthodox and secular Jews, and third-party reports of the Rebbe’s gatherings confirm that they were attended by believers and non-believers alike. Aish Kodesh is also a profoundly sustained work of theodicy, its pages filled with philosophical meditation on the meaning of evil in Jewish thought, and much scholarly attention has been devoted to this aspect of the work, notably Dr. Nehemia Polen’s masterly 1999 study, Holy Fire.

Aish Kodesh has not, however, been studied extensively by historians, who have typically been stymied by the sometimes abstruse Kabbalistic passages and the almost complete absence of explicit references to quotidian events in the ghetto: not once in the entire work do the terms “German” or “Nazi” appear, and the reader must wade through veiled Aesopian language to determine the message of hope that the Rebbe offered in response to the horrors of that week under Nazi occupation.

After the war, a desperate post-war search for the OnegShabbos archives (a collection of documents that chronicled the realities of ghetto life) unearthed the Rebbe’s manuscripts of Aish Kodesh and its subsequent publication in Israel. Popularized in song by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a renaissance of interest in Piaseczno chassidus developed in both scholarly and popular circles, notably under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger of Woodmere, whose Aish Kodesh congregation takes its inspiration from the life and work of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro.

Publication information: Esh Kodesh, Tel Aviv: Va’ad Hasidei Piaseczno, 1960

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

Jewish History Manifesto by Dr. Henry Abramson

Imagine that, while browsing in the library, you come across one book unlike the rest, which catches your eye because on its spine is written the name of your family. Intrigued, you open it and see many pages written by different hands in many languages. You start reading it, and gradually you begin to understand what it is. It is the story each generation of your ancestors has told for the sake of the next, so that everyone born into this family can learn where they came from, what happened to them, what they lived for and why. As you turn the pages, you reach the last, which carries no entry but a heading. It bears your name.

Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll


We believe:

  • that the study of Jewish history adds value and meaning to human existence for both Jews and non-Jews
  • that academic Jewish history lectures need not sacrifice content to be entertaining
  • that access to high-quality information on Jewish history should be free
  • that shared intellectual curiosity about Jewish history is a healthy way to build a community
  • that the study of Jewish history is one of many paths that lead to the study of Torah, and that Torah study is enriched by a fuller understanding of Jewish history

Jewish History in the Sixteenth Century (Essential Lectures in Jewish History)

The Jewish people experienced dramatic changes in the sixteenth century that reverberate to this day. This lecture discusses three aspects of this century in particular: 1) the demographic upheavals associated with the expulsions from Spain and Portugal as well as the Ashkenazic migration, 2) the impact of the disruptive technology of printing, and 3) the ramifications of the Safed circle.


Thanks for not asking too many hard questions! Henry Abramson’s 2014 Lectures in Review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 31,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 11 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

What is Chanukah, and How Do You Spell it? This Week in Jewish History

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What, exactly is Chanukah (or is it Hanukah, or Hannukkah)? This short video describes the historical origins of the holiday, notes the ironic nature of its observance in the American context, and has a couple of jokes besides.


Suggested Holiday Gifts (Maybe for people you don’t especially like).

The Sea of Talmud   kof cover DMA_Fotor   Rambam CoverTHUMBNAIL_IMAGE   prayer-for-the-government-cover   art of hatred cover

Many titles available as eBooks.

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