The Kabbalah of Forgiveness
The Thirteen Levels of Mercy in Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s
Date Palm of Devorah (Tomer Devorah)
“The Insulted King,” Illustration of Level 1 by Rebecca Odessa, Courtesy The Wisdom Daily
“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. Tomer Devorah 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 Shaarei Kedushah and Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas’s Reishis Chochmah. Tomer Devorah 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 Divrei Chaim), Tomer Devorah 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.
Rabbi Cordovero’s Introduction
הָאָדָם רָאוּי שֶׁיִּדַּמֶּה לְקוֹנוֹ וְאָז יִהְיֶה בְּסוֹד הַצּוּרָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה צֶלֶם וּדְמוּת, שֶׁאִלּוּ יְדֻמֶּה בְּגוּפוֹ וְלֹא בִּפְעֻלּוֹת הֲרֵי הוּא מַכְזִיב הַצּוּרָה וְיֹאמְרוּ עָלָיו צוּרָה נָאָה וּמַעֲשִׂים כְּעוּרִים. שֶׁהֲרֵי עִיקָר הַצֶּלֶם וְהַדְּמוּת הָעֶלְיוֹן הֵן פְּעֻלּוֹתָיו, וּמַה יוֹעִיל לוֹ הֱיוֹתוֹ כְּצוּרָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה דְּמוּת תַּבְנִית אֵבָרָיו וּבַפְּעֻלּוֹת לֹא יִדַמֶּה לְקוֹנוֹ.
לְפִיכָךְ רָאוּי שֶׁיִּדַּמֶּה אֶל פְּעֻלּוֹת הַכֶּתֶר שֶׁהֵן י“ג מִדּוֹת שֶׁל רַחֲמִים עֶלְיוֹנוֹת. וּרְמוּזוֹת בְּסוֹד הַפְּסוּקִים מִי אֵל כָּמוֹךָ. יָשׁוּב יְרַחֲמֵנוּ. תִּתֵּן אֱמֶת. אִם כֵּן רָאוּי שֶׁתִּמְצָאֶנָּה בוֹ י“ג מִדּוֹת אֵלּוּ.
וְעַכְשָׁו נְפָרֵשׁ אוֹתָן הַפְּעֻלּוֹת י“ג שֶׁרָאוּי שֶׁתִּהְיֶינָה בוֹ:
It is Appropriate to Imitate the Creator
It is appropriate to imitate the Creator, and thus participate in the secret of the Supernal Form, Image and Likeness. If a human being were similar in external shape, but not in behavior, this would give lie to the Form. People say of such a person, “beautiful in form, but repulsive in behavior.” This is because the essence of the Form and Supernal Image is measured in terms of behavior. What benefit is there in participating in the Supernal Form, the very Likeness imprinted on one’s limbs, if this similarity to the Creator does not extend to one’s conduct as well?
Therefore it is appropriate that we imitate the activity of Keter, which consists of the Thirteen Levels of Supernal Mercy, derived from the Biblical passage: “Who is like You, God…He will again show mercy… Give truth to Jacob.” It is fitting that a person should develop these Thirteen Levels of Mercy, which we find in the sefirah of Keter.
Now we will explain the function of the Thirteen Levels as applied to human behavior.
Links to Mini-Lectures on the Thirteen Levels:
Level One: The King who Endures Insult
Level Three: Take Care of it Personally
Level Four: Remember the Family
Level Six: Who Makes Your Lunch?
Level Seven: A Knot is Stronger
Level Eight: Maintain a Core of Love
Level Ten: Do the Right Thing Anyway
Level Eleven: Do More for Those Who Do More
Level Twelve: Remember Where they Came From
Level Thirteen: The Moment of Innocence
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Wow, I’m so thrilled by this site.
For the past several years, as one raised Jewish, I’ve realized that nothing of mercy was taught to me. With upholding the 10 commandments and eye-for-an-eye form of justice, pity seemed the closest thing to forgiveness. I’ve come to recognize mercy as unconditional love. I’m glad to know there exists historical awareness and Jewish dialogue on the topic.
Thank you for bringing these thirteen levels of awareness to my attention!
I just finished learning the 13th Level, and completed your magnificent commentary on Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s “Tomer Devorah”. This inspirational, pioneering and timeless spiritual guide has helped me to reflect upon our oneness (Level 4 and 12 – we are one family), the goodness in all persons (Level 6), to be tolerant (Level 1) and patient (Level 2), to remember every kindness (Level 6), to take responsibility for my actions (Level 3), and to always maintain a core of love (Level 8). If I practice and elevate myself every day to this spiritual “chai”, I may have the wisdom to forgive and enable my relationships to heal, to grow, and to become even more meaningful. It will be truly extraordinary to return with Karen to beloved Tsfat and to reflect upon what I have learned at the grave of the Ramak !
I cannot thank you enough for leading me on a spiritual journey through this book and through so many other classes over the years, and for taking me to a higher and holy place.
Kol HaKavod – Marc Rivo
Dear Dr. Abramson,
Thank you Dr. Abramson for this lecture! I have not had that much exposure to the work of the Ramak, and I’m excited to discover it and am looking forward to learning more about it. I cannot believe I have been to Safed without knowing all this information! Thank you for giving over this eye-opening information about improving our character and thus coming closer to G-d.