Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Hebrew: משה חיים
לוצאטו, also Moses Chaim, Moses
Hayyim, also Luzzato) (1707-1746 (26 Iyar 5506)), also known by
the Hebrew acronym RaMCHaL (or RaMHaL, רמח"ל),
was a prominent Italian Jewish rabbi, kabbalist, and philosopher
best remembered today for his ethical treatise
Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just).
Born in Padua, he received classical Jewish and Italian educations,
showing a predilection for literature at a very early age. He may
have attended the University of Padua and certainly associated with
a group of students there, known to dabble in mysticism and alchemy.
With his vast knowledge in religious lore, the arts, and science,
he quickly became the dominant figure in that group. His writings
demonstrate mastery of the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the rabbinical
commentaries and codes of Jewish law.
The turning point in Luzzatto's life came at the age of twenty,
when he made the claim that he was receiving direct instruction
from a mystical being known as the maggid. While such stories were
not unknown in kabbalistic circles, it was unheard of for someone
of such a young age. His peers were enthralled by his written accounts
of these "Divine lessons", but the leading Italian rabbinical
authorities were highly skeptical and threatened to excommunicate
him. Just one hundred years earlier another young mystic, Shabbatai
Zevi (d.1676), had rocked the Jewish world by claiming to be the
Messiah. Although, at one point, Zevi had convinced almost all European
and Middle Eastern rabbis of his claim, the episode ended with him
recanting and converting to Islam. The global Jewish community was
still reeling from that, and the similarities between Luzzatto's
writings and Zevi's were perceived as being particularly dangerous.
These writings, only some of which
have survived, describe Luzzatto's belief that he and his followers
were key figures in a messianic drama that was about to take place.
He identified one of his followers as the Messiah son of David,
but assumed for himself the role of Moses, claiming that he was
that biblical figure's reincarnation. According to his writings,
Moses was ranked higher than the Messiah and was the real catalyst
for the Redemption.
Threatened with excommunication,
Luzzatto finally swore not to write the maggid's lessons or teach
mysticism. In 1735, Luzzatto left Italy for Amsterdam, believing
that in the more liberal environment there, he would be able to
pursue his mystical interests. Passing through Germany, he appealed
to the local rabbinical authorities to protect him from the threats
of the Italian rabbis. They refused and forced him to sign a document
stating that all the teachings of the maggid were false. Most of
his writings were burned, though some did survive. From the Zoharic
writings, the 70 Tikounim `Hadashim re-appeared in 1918 against
all odds, in the Library of Oxford. "Arrangements" of
thoughts, these Tikounim expose 70 different essential uses of the
last verse of the `Houmash. Taught word-by-word in Aramit by the
maggid of the Ram`hal, they parallel the Tikouney haZohar of the
Rashbi, which expose the 70 fundamental understandings of the first
verse of the `Houmash.
When Luzzatto finally reached Amsterdam, he was able to pursue his
studies of the kabbalah relatively unhindered. Earning a living
as a diamond cutter, he continued writing but refused to teach.
It was in this period that he wrote what is his magnum opus the
Mesillat Yesharim (1740), essentially an ethical treatise but with
certain mystical underpinnings. The book presents a step-by-step
process by which every person can overcome the inclination to sin
and reach a level of prophecy. Couched in rabbinic language very
distinct from his other writing, it may have been written as a means
of winning legitimacy among the local Jewish community. Another
Derekh Hashem (The Way of God) is a philosophical text about
God's purpose in Creation, justice, and ethics. Da`at Tevunoth also
found its existence in the Dutch city as the missing link between
rationality and Kabbalah, a dialogue between the intellect and the
soul. On the other hand, Derekh Tevunoth introduces the logic which
structures Talmudic debates as a means to understanding the world
One major rabbinic contemporary who praised Luzzatto's writing was
Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, the Vilna Gaon (1720 - 1797), who was considered
to be the most authoritative Torah sage of the modern era as well
as a great kabbalist himself. He was reputed to have said after
reading the Mesillat Yesharim, that were Luzzatto still alive, that
he would have walked from Vilna to learn at Luzzatto's feet. He
stated that having read the work, the first eight chapters contained
not a superfluous word. This is considered to be one of the highest
praises that one sage can grant another. Dov Ber of Mezeritch also
praised the "Hassid of Padua" and his works among the
Luzzatto also wrote poetry and drama, most of it secular (though
many scholars have identified mystical undertones in this body of
work as well). His writing is strongly influenced by the Jewish
poets of Spain and by contemporary Italian authors.
Frustrated by his inability to teach kabbalah, Luzzatto left Amsterdam
for the Holy Land in 1743, settling in Acre. Three years later,
he and his family died in a plague. It was only a century later
that Luzzato was rediscovered by the Mussar Movement, which adopted
his ethical works. It was the great Torah ethicist, Rabbi Yisrael
Salanter (1810 - 1883) who placed the Messilat Yesharim at the heart
of the Mussar (ethics) curriculum of the major Yeshivot of Eastern
The Hebrew writers of the Haskalah, the Jewish expression of the
Enlightenment, adopted his secular writings and deemed him the founder
of modern Hebrew literature.
Though it is accepted by scholars that his tomb is in Kfar Yassif,
his burial place is traditionally said to be near the Talmudic sage
Rabbi Akiva in Tiberias, northern Israel. The synagogue he built
and prayed in still exists today in Acre.
The 300 years of his birth are celebrated this year 5767 (2007 v.e.).