Touro Dean Eyes Women’s Role in Kabbalistic Tzfat

The Jewish Star, January 27, 2016

By Celia Weintrob
On Rosh Chodesh Shevat, women who attended the Ohel Sara Amen Group in Lawrence enjoyed a lecture by the witty and informative Dr. Henry Abramson about the contribution of women to the Kabbalistic fellowship in Tzfat.

Identifying himself as a “specialist in the history of ideas,” Abramson, dean of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences at Touro College in Flatbush, explained why Tzfat was important as a major incubator of ideas.

“Tzfat, a sleepy little town in the 16th century, never mentioned in the Tanach, experienced an explosion of Jewish spirituality,” he said. “It went from zero to 100 miles per hour over the course of about 80 years” before dying out. But it affected Judaism for the next 400 years. “It would be like having 100 Nobel Prize winners living here in [Lawrence zip code] 11559. Imagine running into them at Seasons! That’s what Tzfat was like.”

“Most women in Tzfat were as literate as their husbands, except it may have been in Portuguese or Spanish rather than Hebrew,” but there are few documented records of women’s voices in the fellowship, mostly hazy glimpses, Abramson said.

However, much is known about Francesca Sarah Fioretta of Modena, who was thought to have had prophetic abilities and was a dream interpreter. After dreaming that all of Tzfat would be destroyed by earthquakes and plagues, the rabbis coordinated a three day community-wide fast, which was followed by another dream that Hashem had accepted their teshuvah.

In this regard, Fioretta’s “authority was equal to that of men,” Abramson pointed out. This versatile woman “was well versed in the Mishna, Zohar and Torah, and gave classes behind a mechitza to men. There were many possibilities for women at that time.”

“The fellowship was quite concerned with the status of women,” he said. “Even the smallest details of conversations between a couple was thought to have deep kabbalistic meaning. The Kabbalah, as a whole, is a deeply gendered system of thought.”

 

In the 15th century, 20 years before Tzfat took off, the Iberian peninsula was plagued by the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jews left Spain for Portugal, where they had only a brief respite before moved on to Tzfat. But why Tzfat?

Citing the “Abramson rule of history,” the dean said that “money was certainly a big part of it.”

“If you don’t know the reason why something happened, it’s probably due to money,” he said. “In this case, taxes were dramatically lowered by the Ottomans to encourage international trade. It was like the Las Vegas of its time.”

Asked why Jerusalem was not the preferred destination, he said there was no tax incentive in the Holy City, where 300 years earlier there was barely minyan. “We know this because in 1269, when Ramban was there, they had to bring in Jewish farmers from the countryside to make a minyan,” he said.

For 80 years, Tzfat attracted the finest Jewish minds. Shlomo Alkabetz, known for writing L’chah Dodi, was one of the first to arrive, around the year 1500.

“Alkabetz was known for wandering around the countryside, leaving himself open to spiritual vibrations, and he located many graves of tzaddikim that way,” said Abramson. “Maybe not a scientifically or archeologically sound methodology, but this creative element built up Tzfat’s notability, as well as the new industry of spiritual tourism.”

The elder statesman of Tzfat was Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, whose halachic insights seemed to derive from kabbalistic inspiration as much as conventional book-learning, Abramson said. Moshe Cordovero, Alkabetz’s son-in-law, who authored Pardes Rimonim and Tomer Devorah in the early days of printing, is famous for creating a systematic guide to Kabbalah with chapters and titles, in what we now think of as Western style. Students flocked to Cordovero.

Then the Arizal, Isaac Luria, arrived in Tzfat from Egypt, and he studied with Cordovero until Cordovero died about a year later. Luria himself died shortly afterward. This group was very big on ascetic living and ritual self mortification, but they worked together as a chavurah (fellowship), gathering each night to discuss what they had done wrong during the day and how to fix it.

“Are you aware of the smicha controversy?” Abramson asked his audience. “This too started in Tzfat.” Smicha (rabbinic ordination — literally, laying on of hands) came about at this place and time. In Jewish tradition, Moshe transferred leadership and authority by laying hands on Yehoshua, who did the same with the nevi’im, and so on. In the second Temple period, this was lost as an institution. Yaakov Beirav came up with the idea to reconstitute smicha for the first time in 1,500 years, seeking to endow the title rabbi with a new level of authority and respect.

“His justification was that we are the greatest Jewish minds of the day, and as such are well-suited to determine who should hold rabbinic authority,” Abramson said.

As for parnassah, Abramson cited plentiful and well-preserved Ottoman tax records that indicated the Tzfat rabbis were supported by the community.

“However, the Arizal was an international pepper merchant. The very last thing he said was, ‘Please pay all my creditors’.”

The Ohel Sara Amen Group, in memory of Sarit Marton, a’h, meets each Rosh Chodesh at 8:15 am in Lawrence, with a lecture at 9:30 following morning brochas, Shacharit and Hallel. The group is open to all women, and provides shiurim, classes, and other programming throughout the month. There is no charge to attend. For further information, call 718-327-7040 or email OhelSaraAmen@gmail.com.

This article appeared in The Jewish Star on January 27, 2016:  http://www.thejewishstar.com/stories/Touro-dean-eyes-womens-role-in-Kabbalistic-Tzfat,6766

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