The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Lurianic Kabbalists as Scholars and Scribes in Seventeenth-Century Jerusalem

In the 1640s, a trove of Lurianic kabbalistic writings by Hayyim Vital were discovered in a geniza in Safed. Over the following years, these manuscripts – which were incomplete and in disarray – were edited into new compositions in Jerusalem by Jacob Zemah, a Portuguese converso who had returned to Judaism. Zemah developed a distinct editorial practice and theory with regards to Vital’s Lurianic texts, and attracted students who – like him – combined the roles of scholar and scribe. This lecture will examine some of Zemah’s fundamental attitudes to text-editing, drawing on his writings and those of his younger colleagues and students. I will argue that this circle’s sophisticated scribal practices were motivated, at least in part, by their belief in Luria’s prophetic status and the sanctity of his writings. Then, I will turn to a manuscript of Lurianic “derushim” copied by Zemah’s Ashkenazi students, Meir Poppers and Nathan Shapira. This manuscript represents the earliest example of Poppers’ editorial work. I will argue that, for Poppers and others, there was a reciprocal relation between the studying of texts, the copying of texts, and the editing of texts. Copying texts, word by word, was the best way to thoroughly master Lurianic knowledge. Simultaneously, a deeper knowledge of Lurianic texts enabled Poppers to edit them into more comprehensive and coherent volumes. Over the next centuries, Poppers’ own authoritative Lurianic anthologies - Derekh Ets Hayyim, Pri Ets Hayyim, and Nof Ets Hayyim – would become canonical in East-Central Europe and much of the Ottoman Empire. A deeper understanding of his work and its contexts provides new insights into the methods and meanings of Lurianic kabbalistic scholarship across the diaspora.