Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
Ever since his brief sojourn in this world in the early 1700's Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, has been a faithful and beloved guide for generations of Jewish spiritual seekers. His admirers range from towering giants such as Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-97), to the growing thousands of present-day returnees to Judaism who are discovering in Ramchal's works a living source of profound insight and inspiration.
Ramchal's classic exposition of the Torah path of spiritual development, Mesilat Yesharim, "Path of the Just", has for hundreds of years been accepted by all sections of Jewry and is part of the curriculum in many yeshivas and other centers of Torah study. With the publication of more and more of Ramchal's other writings on Hashkafah (Torah world-view) and Kabbalah, he is now being recognized as one of the outstanding kabbalistic geniuses of all time.
The Gaon of Vilna said he would have walked all the way to
The contribution of Ramchal to Kabbalah has been compared to that of Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, 1135-1204) to the Halachah (Torah law). Out of the vast "sea" of talmudic literature that only outstanding scholars could master, Rambam distilled his comprehensive Code of Torah Law, the Mishneh Torah, an all-time model of clarity and order easily understood even by a school-boy. Similarly Ramchal brought order and clarity to the labyrinth of kabbalistic concepts and teachings in the writings of the ARI, producing a ladder of ascent and entry into its mysteries that can be used profitably by any serious student.
Born in Padua,
Ramchal clearly attained all the levels of piety, purity and holy spirit that he later elucidated in his Mesilat Yesharim. By the time he was twenty his Beit Midrash was a flourishing center of kabbalistic study and devotion, while his sermons in the synagogues of Padua inspired many estranged Jews to return to their roots.
But Ramchal's very success aroused the evil eye, and before long he found himself at the center of a furious controversy over his public teaching of Kabbalah. What especially aroused the ire of his opponents were the reports that he received regular visits from holy souls and Maggidim, spiritual guides, at whose dictation he wrote entire books and discourses including several in the style of the Zohar. The Jewish world was still suffering from the ructions caused by Shabbetai Tzvi's terrible perversion of Kabbalah only a generation or two earlier, providing extra fuel for the fierce campaign of persecution waged against Ramchal by leading figures in the community in
At the height of the controversy, Ramchal wrote to his teacher, Rabbi Yishayah Basan:
"My way is to nod my head at every wave that comes. No matter what those wicked people may say about me, it is of no more significance in my eyes than garlic peel. I am not disheartened. I pay no attention to them. I am not interested in honor or greatness. I will go in the purity of my heart within my house together with God who has ever been my Shepherd..."
For the sake of peace, Ramchal agreed to stop teaching and writing for a while. He even said he would allow his writings to be burned if it would help restore the peace, just as the Red Heifer has to be burned in order for its ashes to be used to purify those defiled by contact with the dead. Before long, however, Ramchal decided to leave
Some years later he decided to journey to the Holy Land, where he died in an outbreak of plague in Acre in 1747. He was thirty-nine. His grave, overlooking Tiberias, is adjacent to the burial cave of Rabbi Akiva, of whom Ramchal's students considered their master to have been a reincarnation.
In his introduction to Derech HaShem, his systematic exposition of the fundamentals of Jewish faith, Ramchal writes:
"Organized knowledge of a subject and the interrelationship of its various parts is superior to disorganized knowledge just as a beautiful garden arranged with beds of flowers, paths and rows of plants is superior to a chaotically overgrown forest.. Any given subject contains such a multitude of individual details that the human mind cannot contain them all. A person should always endeavor to grasp general principles. Each general principle includes numerous individual details. When a person understands one principle he automatically understands a great number of details."
What makes the study of Ramchal's writings so rewarding is that, whether dealing with Hashkafah, Kabbalah, talmudic logic or anything else, he invariably provides crystal-clear definitions and explanations of all the underlying concepts and categories and their interrelationships.
Derech HaShem was in fact written as the first "rung" of a carefully devised ladder of ascent from general knowledge of the foundations of Jewish faith and belief to deep understanding of the kabbalistic concepts that underlie them. The next rung in the ladder is Daat Tevunot, translated as "The Knowing Heart". Cast in the form of a philosophical dialogue between the intellect and the soul, this work explains all the basic contours of the kabbalistic view of creation and its purpose but without using kabbalistic terminology.
The third rung of the ladder consists of Klalim Rishonim ("First Principles") and Pitchey Chochmah va-Daat ("Openings of Wisdom and Understanding"), which present the entire array of kabbalistic concepts in Etz Chaim in a clear, orderly way. The top rung of the ladder is Klach Pitchey Chochmah ("One hundred and thirty-eight Openings of Wisdom"), an in-depth exploration of the meaning and significance of those concepts.
The above are among over ninety works known to have been written by Ramchal besides others that may have been lost. His works include commentary on Bible, Zohar and writings of the ARI, explanations of mystical devotions and collections of prayers as well as works on logic, grammar, rhetoric and talmudic reasoning. Until today numerous surviving works have never been printed.
Mesilat Yesharim has long been readily available but until relatively recently the few other works of Ramchal that were brought to press were often hard to find and poorly printed. Since the 1970's a series of fine, accurate Hebrew editions of many of Ramchal's most important works have been published through the efforts of the late Rabbi Chaim Friedlander ז"ל and a number of other scholars, bringing them within easy reach of growing numbers of students. In addition Ramchal is now accessible to those who do not know Hebrew through the translations of "The Path of the Just", "The Way of God" and "The Knowing Heart" as well as some of his works on logic and reasoning.
It is one of the great miracles of providence and a sign of God's love and compassion for the Jewish People that we have in our possession today the work translated in this volume, Mishkney Elyon.
Ramchal mentions the work by name in a letter he wrote to his teacher, Rabbi Yishayah Basan, in 1729 (Letters p. 31 #109). This was at the height of the fury against Ramchal, when his opponents sought to burn his writings and prevent him writing any more. The date of the letter indicates that Ramchal was no more than twenty-two years old when he wrote this work! Another contemporary reference is contained in a letter by Rabbi Yitzchak Pacifico of Venice, who mentions that Ramchal "wrote an explanation of Ezekiel's vision of the Temple and of the Heavenly Temple, which he called Mishkney Elyon" (Ms. Montefiore 111).
The work was not printed during Ramchal's lifetime, and nothing is known about what happened to it thereafter, until a single manuscript - the only known copy of the work in existence - came to light in 1956 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford in a bundle of unidentified kabbalistic manuscripts. The manuscript in question did not bear the name of its author, but the scholar Professor Yishayah Tishbi identified it as the work of Ramchal. The manuscript itself is thought to be in the hand of Ramchal's leading student, Rabbi Shlomo David Trevis.
Mishkney Elyon was transcribed by Rabbi Yosef Spinner שליט"א, who divided it into titled sections and added explanatory notes. The text was printed for the first time in 1980 in Ginzey Ramchal, a volume of Ramchal's kabbalistic writings published in
At the request of the Lubavitcher Rebbe זצ"ל a new edition of Mishkney Elyon was published in a separate volume in 1993 by the Ramchal Institute in Jerusalem. This edition contains an introduction by Rabbi Mordekhai Chriqui שליט"א, Director of the Institute, together with his commentary on the "Five Chapters".
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by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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