In February 1735, Moses Ḥayim Luzzatto entered Amsterdam for the first time. The previous few months had been trying, as he left his family and disciples in his native Italy, braved crossing the Alps in the dead of winter, and experienced hostility from rabbis in both Venice and Frankfurt. Just eight years earlier, he had been a rising star in his hometown of Padua. Born with exceptional intellectual and literary talents to wealthy parents, Luzzatto began studying medicine at the University of Padua at the age of sixteen,
completed his first book at the age of seventeen,
and received rabbinic ordination at eighteen.
In the process, however, he chose to shed the common Italian mold of rabbi-doctor, and devote himself to the study of Kabbalah and a life of mystical piety. In 1727, Luzzatto concluded that he had gained access to a magid, a heavenly voice through which he could learn the secrets of the universe and spur redemption. Along with several like-minded young men, many of whom came from similarly privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, Luzzatto formed a confraternity with an elaborate hierarchy and identity, intent on restoring cosmic unity and creating a new spiritual order.
In 1729, six years before his arrival in Amsterdam, news spread about the group's activities, including their belief that Luzzatto knew the depths of men's souls, was a reincarnation of the biblical Moses and the talmudic sage Akiva ben Yosef, and conversed with angels and souls on high. Although Luzzatto and his companions were accepted in Padua, and in fact made up the bulk of the community's rabbinic and intellectual elite, the response from abroad was swift and harsh. Fearing the rise of yet another Sabbatian theologian and messianic pretender, the heresy hunter Moses Ḥagiz initiated a campaign to suppress Luzzatto. Ḥagiz urged the Venetian rabbinate to bring the youngsters in line, and gained the written support of numerous Ashkenazic rabbis in central and eastern Europe. Between 1729 and 1735, Luzzatto was compelled to sign oaths denouncing himself, surrendered several texts reportedly composed under the influence of his magid, and was prevented from bringing manuscripts to press. Rabbis in Altona, Berlin, Breslau, Brody, Fürth, Lemberg, Nikolsberg, and elsewhere in Europe condemned or banned Luzzatto. They variously referred to him as “the evil man” (איש הרע), demanded that he cease teaching Kabbalah, and called for the confiscation (and even burning) of his writings.
Luzzatto's dreams of fulfilling the redemption through the work of his circle in Padua were shattered.
Yet, by the time Luzzatto departed from Amsterdam in the spring of 1743, he had printed three books and written several more, and was no longer the target of antiheretical attacks. What did Luzzatto do during his eight years in Amsterdam? Who supported him in the wake of a controversy that had engulfed the European rabbinate and largely condemned him as a heretic? How did this period relate to his mystico-messianic endeavor in Padua?
Luzzatto's eight years in Amsterdam both diverged from his kabbalistic persona in Italy and contradicted the numerous bans writ large against him. Once in Amsterdam, the city's Portuguese Jewish community accepted, and even celebrated, Luzzatto as an important member of its rabbinic circle. Luzzatto received a stipend to study in the community's Ets Haim Yeshiva and was recognized as a knowledgeable and pious rabbinic scholar. This acceptance was enabled in no small measure by Luzzatto's willingness to adjust to his new surroundings and make himself useful. The texts he produced—none overtly mystical—were directed at members of his adopted community, from laymen with limited training in Jewish theology to rabbinical students in search of intellectual and spiritual tools. Luzzatto willfully presented himself with a more mainstream façade, shedding external (though not internal) messianic pretentions in favor of living a pietistic, even quietist, lifestyle. This adjustment assuaged his detractors, and simultaneously facilitated (or forced) the development of his internal mystical compass even more acutely.
Although scholars have written extensively about Luzzatto and his literary oeuvre, there has been virtually no study of his important stay in Amsterdam.
Luzzatto's eight years in the city—a “lost” phase in his biography—illuminate his mystical intentions, social philosophy, and attitude towards contemporary rabbinic culture. In addition, study of this phase of Luzzatto's life sheds light on western Sephardic culture in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, itself an understudied and significant period in the history of Portuguese Jewry.
Portuguese Acceptance of Luzzatto
The earliest record of Luzzatto in Amsterdam appears in a Portuguese charity register indicating that he received three florins on 28 Shevat 5495 (February 20, 1735).
Though he had been raised and supported by wealthy parents, enabling the development of his intellectual gifts and spiritual interests, Luzzatto evidently arrived in Amsterdam with little means to sustain himself.
Like so many others in the great and prosperous city, Luzzatto requested and obtained monetary assistance from Portuguese Jewry. In a letter sent to Italy, he claimed that community members had offered him work, and records show that he continued to depend on civic aid for several years.
In the least, the Portuguese charitable society Abodad a Hesed provided Luzzatto with three florins per month between 1737 and 1740.
It is striking that Luzzatto regularly received financial support from a Portuguese communal institution. He was ethnically Ashkenazic and an ordained rabbi, whereas most individuals on the rolls of Abodad a Hesed were Portuguese men, women, and orphans lacking distinguished vocations.
Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld has shown that Portuguese poor relief was ordinarily reserved for two groups: those who came directly from the Iberian Peninsula (forasteiro), who received unconditional aid, and those who already lived in Amsterdam. Needy Ashkenazic Jews, who came to far outnumber Amsterdam's Sephardim in the eighteenth century, could also receive assistance, but Luzzatto's monthly stipend for several years running was unusual if not very rare. Western Sephardic history, culture, and economic prosperity shaped Portuguese Jewry's identity as a distinct Nação (nation), and community rules governing interaction with other ethnicities extended to charitable contributions.
By the 1730s, with increasing impoverishment, Portuguese lay leaders moved to relieve themselves of a relentless financial burden. Vagrants were sent away almost immediately upon arrival, and the poor were encouraged to settle in other European metropolises, or, if Portuguese, were shipped to Dutch colonies in the West Indies.
Equally remarkable was Luzzatto's receipt of a stipend (aspaca) and grants to study in the Ets Haim Yeshiva. The community had long hosted chief rabbis from abroad, but Ets Haim itself, like other communal institutions, was not ordinarily open to outsiders. In the early years of the community, the Ets Haim Yeshiva helped solidify the Nação's self-perception of inimitability, and in the decades prior to Luzzatto's arrival students were almost exclusively Portuguese. At least until 1661, a regulation stipulated that no Italian students were to be admitted to the yeshiva.
Following restructuring of Ets Haim in 1728, coinciding with the ascension of a new chief rabbinate, Ashkenazim were permitted to study in the Ets Haim Yeshiva, but they were still officially denied access to funding.
As such, Luzzatto's experience in Amsterdam was exceptional. Instead of receiving a one-off sum before being sent on his merry way, he became both an institutionalized recipient of communal welfare and a fixture in the Ets Haim Yeshiva. This is even more remarkable considering the deluge of warning that had descended upon the city from Luzzatto's opponents.
Ashkenazic authorities from central and eastern European aptly suspected that the Italian kabbalist would seek refuge within Amsterdam's Sephardic community, who, a scant two decades earlier, had openly supported the Sabbatianist Neḥemiah Ḥiya Ḥayon.
That controversy exhibited a sharp ethnic divide: the Ashkenazic rabbis of Amsterdam, Ḥakham Ẓevi Ashkenazi and Moses Ḥagiz, came down hard on Ḥayon and his Sephardic enthusiasts, and the latter responded by running Ḥakham Ẓevi and Ḥagiz out of town. With Luzzatto on their doorstep, Portuguese leadership faced a potential imbroglio.
While clear justification for Portuguese support of Luzzatto is lacking, several factors seem to have collectively played a role. One, Luzzatto's younger brother Lion, who had arrived in Amsterdam a few years earlier, may have been sufficiently well known to vouch for his integrity. There is evidence that Lion practiced medicine in Amsterdam,
and he himself was deemed suitable enough to marry a Portuguese woman in 1737.
Two, his Italian origin more closely matched Portuguese and Dutch cultural mores than those of recent arrivals from Poland. He had come from a city known for its university, architecture, and commerce, and his knowledge of Romance languages positioned him to converse with Portuguese leadership more easily than the vast majority of east European immigrants. Three, Luzzatto's rabbinic knowledge and demeanor may have proven more impressive than prevailing notions of his treachery. He undoubtedly arrived wearily, made meeker by his experience in Frankfurt, where he had been accosted by the local rabbinate and forced to denounce himself.
Regardless, the extent of Luzzatto's acceptance in the community indicates that both lay and rabbinic leadership utterly rejected the bans against him.
They enrolled Luzzatto in the Medras Grande, the highest class of the Ets Haim Yeshiva, providing him with the time, space, and books to pursue his studies. Between 1738 and 1742, Luzzatto collected seven florins per month from the main budget of Ets Haim, which was then responsible for nearly one hundred fifty students of all ages in seven classes.
In 1737, 1739, 1741, and 1742, he received two and a half florins per year
from a separate fund that simultaneously provided nine other studiers (estudantes) with the same amount for learning under the community's 'av bet din.
Another document records Luzzatto's concurrent admittance to the Emet Le Jahacob Yeshiva, privately funded along with a sister yeshiva called Oel Jahacob by wealthy gem merchant Jacob Pereira.
In 1675, Pereira established the yeshivot under the auspices of the Ets Haim Yeshiva, which maintained them after his death through a bequest he provided (conta de legado).
Several of the men who engaged in scholarly activity in the Medras Grande also received stipends as part of Pereira's yeshivot. Some received upwards of 125 florins per year, the chief rabbis shared 160 florins between them, and members of Emet Le Jahacob, like Luzzatto, were granted 50 florins. The documents of the Pereira yeshivot are itemized financial records, providing the date of admittance for each member. The short entry detailing Luzzatto's entrance into the yeshiva, together with Abraham Mendes Chumasero and Mosseh de Molinas, explains that they were the replacements for three outgoing scholars. It also states that they were selected by the system of busolo e balas, modeled on a voting method that combined elements of both chance and selection that was used in Venice to select the doge, and in Padua, among other Jewish communities of the Veneto, to elect officials (parnasim).
In the spring of 1741, Luzzatto joined, or perhaps was promoted to, the Oel Jahacob Yeshiva, where he received a stipend of eighty florins. Three other scholars were admitted to Oel Jahacob at the same time, with each student supplanting someone previously admitted and with other men replacing them in Emet Le Jahacob. The relationship between the yeshivot is puzzling, for this particular document states that Luzzatto vacated a position in Emet Le Jahacob in order to join Oel Jahacob in 1741, but another document shows that he was considered part of Emet Le Jahacob in 1743. Yet, still another document from the spring of 1744 discusses filling Luzzatto's seat in Oel Jahacob because of his emigration to the Holy Land (Terra Santa).
At present, I have not seen regulations of the Pereira yeshivot that would explain their selection process, but it seems feasible that, just as the parnasim were elected on a yearly basis, so too were the salaried positions for scholars filled each year. Luzzatto's absence from some of the yearly rolls of Ets Haim indicates that he was not always fortunate to be selected as a participant in the class. The ubiquity of his name in the archives, however, reflects Luzzatto's established presence in mainstream Portuguese society.
Communal leaders valued Luzzatto so far as to honor him with a prominent seat in the Esnoga, the symbol of communal religious pride.
Constructed over several years and dedicated in 1675, the magnificent synagogue could seat twelve hundred men and four hundred women. Until the 1730s, only a few seats had been assigned: the chief rabbi sat on a bench in front of the lectern facing the ark, and the parnasim sat together on a raised platform with high-backed benches on the north wall. Although many chairs in the cavernous space were undoubtedly left vacant on a regular basis, some seats were deemed more prestigious or advantageous than others, and confusion and strife consequently plagued the synagogue as men vied for these coveted seats. In the midst of Luzzatto's stay in Amsterdam, the Mahamad resolved to establish a policy of fixed seating, in which a given place could be reserved for a period of three years.
Around 1738, Luzzatto was granted a highly prestigious seat between the lectern and the holy ark, facing the seating platform of the parnasim. Although they could not match the devotion or kabbalistic intention of Luzzatto's disciples in Padua, this conspicuous and distinguished position was an indication of Luzzatto's importance to lay leaders, rabbinic scholars, and the community at large.
Luzzatto's rehabilitation in Amsterdam corresponded with an expansion of rabbinic horizons during the second quarter of the eighteenth century. In 1728, following the death of Salomon Ayllion, the popular but controversial figure who had celebrated Neḥemiah Ḥiya Ḥayon,
David Israel Athias and Isaac Ḥayim Abendana de Britto jointly assumed the positions of the chief rabbinate. They intensified the study of Talmud and rabbinic law in the Medras Grande,
and initiated the frequent publication of legal rulings (pesakim) by the yeshiva's rabbis and senior students in the serial Peri ‘eẓ ḥayim (Fruit of the tree of life).
Nearly one thousand distinct pesakim were published between 1691 and 1798, including four hundred during Abendana de Britto's tenure.
In addition, the co-chief rabbis regularly provided book approbations (haskamot), which served to both validate current scholarship and encourage Ets Haim students to produce more. David Meldola, a member of the Medras Grande who became one of Luzzatto's closest colleagues in the city, epitomized the flurry of activity emanating from the yeshiva. He authored, edited, corrected, and facilitated the publishing of a slew of texts in Amsterdam between the 1730s and 1750s, including the work of scholars from abroad, and often in conjunction with fellow estudantes.
In addition, the Mahamad, a traditionally conservative body of laymen, increased its support of Ets Haim during the 1730s and 1740s. Entries in a community record book show that funds were provided annually to purchase books and ritual items for students of all ages,
and estudantes were paid huge sums of money for publishing the pesakim of Peri ‘eẓ ḥayim.
The Mahamad's investment in Ets Haim was probably part of an overall effort to serve the expanding western Sephardic Diaspora. Amsterdam's Portuguese Jews were now training homegrown rabbinic talent, in contrast to the longstanding practice of hiring rabbinic leaders from abroad.
It is this context that best explains Luzzatto's initial acceptance in Amsterdam. Portuguese lay and rabbinic leaders believed that they could benefit from Luzzatto's presence. They may have determined that he was not a threat, or that they could successfully keep him in check should he attempt to subvert their authority. After all, more prominent than a history of tolerating Sabbatianists was the Portuguese practice of suppressing public deviants.
As such, Luzzatto benefitted from the prevailing “liberty of conscience,” which Miriam Bodian and Yosef Kaplan have described as an atmosphere in which people thought as they wished so long as it did not upset the established order.
Portuguese acceptance enabled Luzzatto to maintain his intellectual and pietistic activity at a time when, following several years of struggle with rabbinic elites in Italy and beyond, he was in need of a new place to settle. He was, in short, the right man in the right place at the right time.
On May 26, 1735, a day before the festival of Shavuot, Luzzatto sent a letter to Isaiah Bassan, his mentor and former chief rabbi of Padua.
It was Luzzatto's first communiqué since he had arrived in Amsterdam in February. He expressed regret for having left his native Italy, and lamented the recent death of his father-in-law, David Finzi, chief rabbi of Mantua, whom he had known since his adolescence and who had been a major source of support.
One might expect Luzzatto to have been at least somewhat disheartened. His mystico-messianic venture had stalled in Padua, his attempts at defending himself in Venice had been rebuffed prior to his journey to Amsterdam, and his confrontation with the Frankfurt rabbinate was presently leading to the proliferation of bans from numerous central and eastern European rabbis. The sharpest bans ordered the confiscation of his writings, demanded Luzzatto cease writing and teaching Kabbalah, and even called for his excommunication in this world and the next. As if that were not enough, one of his fiercest critics, Eliezer Rokeaḥ of Brody (1649–1741), was installed as the Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Amsterdam just weeks before Luzzatto's arrival in the city.
Yet, with no sign of dejection, Luzzatto reflected on his present circumstances positively. He assured his former teacher that his life was copasetic, if not on the ascent. He had survived a brutal trek during the bitterest winter in recent memory,
and withstood a hostile encounter in Frankfurt, only to be warmly welcomed by Amsterdam's Portuguese Jewish community. Now, he remarked to Bassan, the “finger of God had placed in the hearts of the entire [Portuguese] community, small and great, a deep love and appreciation for me.” A few months later, Luzzatto declared to Bassan that “all of the students” regularly called on him to teach them ḥokhmat ha-’emet (Kabbalah), and that “they” even desired to place him at the head of their yeshivot.
Of course, his report to Bassan was inaccurate. The idea that “all of the students” pined for his kabbalistic teachings was obvious hyperbole, as was the spurious claim that his newly adopted community offered him the rabbinate. The former statement sharply contrasted with a noticeable disinterest in Kabbalah in the Medras Grande,
while the latter assertion was impossible considering the productive leadership of Athias and Abendana de Britto.
Luzzatto likely sought to reassure his beleaguered colleagues in Padua (with whom Bassan frequently communicated) that their work as a mystic-messianic group had not failed. Throughout his tenure in Amsterdam, Luzzatto encouraged his friends to persist in their mystical quest despite his absence.
Although widespread rejection and the stalling of his movement had taken their toll, he had not despaired. As much as Luzzatto's acceptance in Amsterdam depended on Portuguese willingness to disregard the bans levied against him, it also necessitated Luzzatto's willingness to adjust to his reviled status.
Luzzatto's resolve and facility to adapt stemmed from his unwavering faith in his conceptions of God, and of himself. In 1730, he had vigorously countered his elder opponents with invective, equating Ḥagiz and others with Satan, and criticizing the rabbinic “profession” for being filled by those who served themselves rather than God or Israel.
Over time, however, he came to view his unjust suffering as a product of divine providence. In a treatise composed in Italy in 1734, and another during his stay in Amsterdam, Luzzatto argued that evil was integral to the providential system.
A divinely ordained challenge was akin to contending with an adversary (מקטרג)—a word he used to describe his own ordeal—that would cease to appear “evil” after one accepted its ultimate goodly purpose. God's Oneness, manifested in the inherent unity of all, drove the world on its march towards goodness. Such a viewpoint, coupled with Luzzatto's persistent commitment to living piously in his daily life, enabled his failure in Padua to appear as merely a means to the same redemptive end.
To be sure, Luzzatto continued to reject his predominantly Ashkenazic opponents, harshly condemning them in a way that bordered on spiritual-cultural bigotry. In Frankfurt, he told Bassan, he had witnessed three hundred yeshiva students devoid of even the “scent of piety” (ריח חסידות), hopelessly seeking understanding and wisdom through the “emptiness of talmudic casuistry” (פלפוליהם המהבילים).
Evoking the confusion of the first day of creation, Luzzatto described Ashkenazic scholarship as void, formless, and dark,
and without comprehension of “what the Lord, your God, requires of you” (מה ה' אלהיך שאל מעמך).
Ashkenazic scholars’ focus on the Talmud rather than Kabbalah—on legal minutia rather than the divine spirit—was, according to Luzzatto, an impious waste of time and ability. Moreover, Luzzatto alluded to Bassan, Ashkenazic cultural impiety was what had precluded so many rabbinic authorities from celebrating his own attempts to spread kabbalistic ideas and enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, compelled by his lack of success, Luzzatto willingly submitted to his enemies’ demands. He no longer spoke of his magid, and made no attempts to set up his own yeshiva. He may have justified his acquiescence with a belief that God explicitly “required” him to pursue his own personal, rather than communal, mystical journey. His suggestion to Bassan that Ashkenazim were ignorant of God's will implied quite the opposite about himself. As such, Luzzatto did not exactly “refashion” himself in Amsterdam. Rather, he adapted to his circumstances by withholding certain mystical and messianic aspects of his personality that had repeatedly proved problematic.
Accordingly, Luzzatto manifested his talents judiciously. Sitting in the Medras Grande, he utilized Ets Haim's extensive library
and worked to influence his new community without attempting to lead it. He produced his famous pietistic manifesto, Mesillat yesharim (Path of the righteous), as well as Derekh ha-Shem (Way of God), a systematic cosmology of the universe and spirituality, and Derekh tevunot (Way of reason), a primer to the study of the Talmud. Each of these three major works served as an introduction, whether to pietism, kabbalistic ideology, or talmudic study. In addition, Luzzatto disseminated at least four essays—“Derekh ḥokhmah” (Way of wisdom), “Ma'amar ‘al ha-hagadot” (Essay on parables), “Ma'amar ha-‘ikarim” (Essay on fundamentals), and “Ma'amar ha-ḥokhmah” (Essay on wisdom)—all of which presented abstract traditional concepts as packaged dogma.
He also penned two books of logic, Sefer ha-higayon
and Derekh ha-meliẓah,
exploring concepts and language in Bible and Talmud. Charles Manekin has pointed out that Luzzatto himself explained the purpose of Sefer ha-higayon: “When I saw the great need we have for this subject … I chose to arrange [it] in a condensed matter…. Most of it I translated from the books that preceded me in other languages, and I brought it to our language for the benefit of my coreligionists.”
Luzzatto's Amsterdam compositions were noticeably more prosaic than the esoteric or highly technical treatises of his messianic youth. He successfully presented each subject so systematically that they are almost textbooks. There is no indication whether Luzzatto engaged in this edifying platform in an effort to curry favor with his Portuguese benefactors, or if his Ets Haim stipend actually depended on his willingness to produce texts relevant to the yeshiva. For that matter, Luzzatto may have acted out of his own intellectual interest, or an altruistic desire to fill a “great need” in the community.
Regardless, Luzzatto's adaption worked in Amsterdam. Aspects of Derekh ha-Shem, “Ma'amar ha-‘ikarim,” and “Ma'amar ha-ḥokhmah” were based on kabbalistic sources and even dealt with messianism, but the material was conventional and dispassionate. Luzzatto did not claim divine inspiration, as he had in Padua, and Portuguese lay and rabbinic leaders responded appreciatively. In a haskamah for the pietistic Mesillat yesharim (Amsterdam, 1740), Athias and Abendana de Britto acclaimed Luzzatto's wisdom and lauded his treatise as essential to living devoutly. In a separate introduction, David Meldola, his Ets Haim colleague, linked Luzzatto to the biblical Moses, stating, “from Moses to Moses none has arisen like Moses.”
Although Meldola did not intend to equate the two in the same vein that Luzzatto himself did (as his reincarnated soul),
it was nonetheless extraordinary to publicly draw such a comparison. Juxtaposition with Moses was reserved for Maimonides, and very occasionally for other great figures.
Athias, Abendana de Britto, and Meldola again honored Luzzatto in approbations for Derekh tevunot (Amsterdam, 1742), going so far as to encourage scholars to utilize Luzzatto's method in studying Talmud.
Decades later, the poet David Franco Mendes, who preserved copies of some of Luzzatto's writings, praised his “revered teacher [as] heaven-graced [who] made others partake of his grace by making many books without end, all of them full of wisdom, knowledge, and fear of the Lord.”
Despite the sizeable volume of his nonmystical literary output, and the praise he thereby aroused from within the yeshiva, Luzzatto functioned quite separately from his peers in Amsterdam. Apart from his inclusion on the rolls of the Medras Grande, Luzzatto's name is noticeably absent from Portuguese rabbinic activity. Colleagues such as Meldola and Jacob Bassan (no relation to Isaiah Bassan)
published pesakim in Peri ‘eẓ ḥayim, worked as proofreaders or editors in printing houses, provided haskamot to new imprints, and contributed to the rabbinic discourse in and out of Ets Haim. Meldola's haskamot show that he was proud of having reached a position of respect among the intellectual and religious elite.
Yet, in the hundreds of responsa printed in Peri ‘eẓ ḥayim and elsewhere, Luzzatto's name appears only three times, and only tangentially.
In one instance, Meldola revealed Luzzatto's relative solitude in the Medras Grande: upon hearing Meldola and others discuss the kosher status of a pheasant, Luzzatto offhandedly remarked that Jews in Italy did indeed regard the bird as fit for consumption.
Rather than conclude with the anecdote, the text proceeds to analyze written halakhic sources, indicating Meldola's unwillingness to rule on the basis of Luzzatto's word.
Luzzatto was neither an integral part of the discussion nor a definitive voice in the yeshiva.
It is not surprising that Luzzatto conducted himself differently from the majority of estudantes in the Medras Grande. He had long relegated halakhic study to a mere two hours per day, deeming it just enough to retain a fresh understanding of mitzvot without abandoning his primary focus of devekut (spiritual adherence to God).
In Mesillat yesharim, in several chapters devoted to perishut (separateness), Luzzatto advocated a pietistic lifestyle on the margins of society as an essential precursor to clinging to the divine. With the yeshiva requiring studiers to sit in the study hall just two hours each morning and two hours in the late afternoon,
Luzzatto could almost continually engage in his private efforts.
Still, Luzzatto did not live in isolation from society at large. In addition to befriending scholars within Ets Haim, Luzzatto developed bonds with laymen, especially the wealthy merchant Moses de Chaves. De Chaves served variously as parnas, treasurer of the Ets Haim Yeshiva,
director of the community butchery (carniseria),
and as benefactor of innumerable people and institutions. He also provided loans to the Venetian Jewish community, published a poem emphasizing piety in the six-volume Bible Tikkun soferim (Amsterdam, 1725), and was a member of Mikra’ Kodesh, a society of notable figures in the community who met at fixed times every week to study Torah with commentaries.
There are no extant letters between Luzzatto and de Chaves, nor is there evidence that de Chaves had personal connections to Luzzatto's relations in Italy, but a friendship clearly developed over time. De Chaves was a member of the Mahamad in the late 1730s, during which time Luzzatto received his seat in the Esnoga and was commissioned to compose “Le-'el ’elim,” a poem honoring the bridegrooms (ḥatanim) of Simḥat Torah. The ode was set to music and performed as a duet by cantors in the Esnoga in 1739,
and was almost immediately incorporated into the community's liturgy.
The intimacy of their relationship became most apparent towards the end of Luzzatto's tenure in Amsterdam. In April 1743, while preparing to embark on a trip abroad (ultimately to the Holy Land), Luzzatto arranged before witnesses and a notary public for de Chaves's son Jacob to manage his estate in the city.
Jacob agreed to administer all of Luzzatto's financial and legal matters, including the liquidation of his possessions and assets in the event of his death. Only months prior to this arrangement, Luzzatto had composed the drama La-yesharim tehillah (Praise for the righteous) in honor of Jacob's marriage to Rachel da Veiga Henriques.
The text was issued in just fifty copies on thick paper in large format, each with two title pages printed luxuriously with red ink.
It is unknown whether de Chaves commissioned Luzzatto to compose the drama for the wedding, or if Luzzatto opted to do so out of appreciation for Jacob's willingness to act as his estate's executor. Or, perhaps Luzzatto wrote La-yesharim tehillah as a genuine celebration of a family or friend with whom he was close. Regardless, the deluxe nature of the volume—a prominent symbol of rejoicing in the union of two of the community's wealthiest families—signified the author's notoriety among members of high society.
Almost immediately after the de Chaves-Henriques wedding, at the height of his literary productivity and societal recognition, Luzzatto set off for the Holy Land. His place in the stipend-granting Oel Jahacob Yeshiva seems to have been held for a year before officials determined the Italian was not returning.
The particulars of Luzzatto's journey, his reason for settling in Acre (rather than Jerusalem or the newly reconstituted community of Tiberias),
and the three years he lived in Palestine before dying with his wife and son in a plague, are shrouded in mystery.
So too is his decision to leave his comfortable life in Europe's most cosmopolitan city. Luzzatto had not reached the summit he had envisioned as a youth, but he had found peace and security amid a tumultuous storm of rejection. His 1735 letters to Isaiah Bassan underscored his belief that God had provided relief, and for more than eight years he worked to spiritually and intellectually benefit the community that had welcomed him. His willingness to dispense with Portuguese support, however, meant that he remained committed to something unavailable to him in either Padua or Amsterdam.
The Limits of Acceptance and Adaptation
On Wednesday, September 10, 1738, less than a week before Rosh Hashanah, Luzzatto rested his pen next to a pile of tightly written pages that commenced with the words “There was once a sage to whom God had given a wise and understanding heart.”
He had finished copying his manuscript in a legible hand, ready to submit the work for publication. The untitled treatise, printed two years later as a heavily edited Mesillat yesharim, was Luzzatto's philosophy of pietism.
Set as it was in a dialogue between a ḥasid (pietist) and a ḥakham (rabbi), Luzzatto hoped to provide a means through which to guide his new rabbinic colleagues in Amsterdam. The characters embody diverging worldviews, intentions, and study habits, and, contextualized within Luzzatto's biography, they reflect his continued struggle for acknowledged spiritual supremacy.
The manuscript commences with a narrative describing a wise and intelligent man who approaches Torah rationally and performs mitzvot meticulously, but is forever in search of fulfillment. At the moment of his introduction to the reader, the ḥakham is perplexed by the intentions and activities of pietists who live contentedly despite devoting themselves only to the recitation of Psalms and the study of Musar (morality). Moving from narration to dialogue, the ḥakham meets a ḥasid and inquires about the latter's erudition and outlook, to which the ḥasid replies humbly that he has little to tell. When the ḥasid asks the ḥakham in turn to teach him what he has learned in all his years of talmudic study, the latter pompously responds that the ḥasid could not possibly comprehend: “My brother, you cannot taste the fruit of wisdom, for you have accustomed yourself only to the practice of separateness and seclusion [פרישות והתבודדות], reciting hymns or supplications. You have not trained yourself in conceptual analysis and dialectical discourse with students [בעיונים ובפלפול התלמידים]. Words of wisdom are for you like the words of a sealed book.”
In demeaning “separateness and seclusion,” the ḥakham denigrates fundamental concepts of kabbalistic thought. He proceeds to detail the challenges of his own studies, and claims that the ideal pursuit consists of talmudic dialectic (pilpul) and legal rulings (piske halakhah).
Unimpressed, the ḥasid rejects the ḥakham's perspective as superficial. In a rapid but elaborate exchange concerning the nature of the divine commandments, their study, and their appropriate fulfillment, the ḥasid presses the ḥakham to explain the essence of love and fear of God.
With obvious autobiographical implication, the ḥasid cites Deuteronomy 10:12–13 as the pinnacle of Jewish life. As discussed above, Luzzatto had used these verses—Moses's directive to fear God, to walk in God's ways, to love God, to serve God, and to keep the commandments—to reproach Ashkenazic rabbinic culture in a letter sent to Isaiah Bassan in 1735. He had argued that his opponents’ spiritual inadequacy (and his subsequent persecution) stemmed from faulty edification and arrogance. Unable to elucidate the relationship between God and man, the ḥakham abandons his perspective and submits to the ḥasid as a willing and faithful student. The subsequent text, and bulk of the manuscript, is the ḥasid's explanation of a baraita attributed to Pinḥas ben Yair, detailing man's pietistic ascent and unification with the divine will.
This manuscript version of Mesillat yesharim, as a product of Musar literature and in its historical and biographical contexts, is deserving of its own extensive study. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this initial investigation into Luzzatto's years in Amsterdam, the humble and unassuming pietist represented a simplified version of Luzzatto himself, while the arrogant and presumptuous sage served as a composite of the author's rabbinic contemporaries. The obstinate ḥakham evoked Luzzatto's critics who had thwarted his redemptive efforts, while the docile ḥasid represented Luzzatto's hope for students sitting in the Ets Haim Yeshiva. In Padua, even at a young age, Luzzatto had conceived of himself as a visionary. Now, in Amsterdam, he sought to promote his pietistic worldview—not Kabbalah per se, but the living spirit behind kabbalistic study—as worthy of widespread adoption. With the Medras Grande engaged in the writing and publication of responsa literature, Luzzatto sought to prevent his young colleagues from (over)emphasizing pilpul and piske halakhah. As such, this manuscript reflected Luzzatto's social and religious critique of contemporary rabbinic culture, and, with the ḥasid's triumph, his own hope for widespread vindication.
The manuscript also demonstrates that in Amsterdam Luzzatto was not merely a passive recipient of charity, or a mystic or quietist in exile. Luzzatto here recorded himself defeating his opponents in the hopes of extending direct spiritual influence over Portuguese rabbinic culture and beyond. In fact, in Derekh ha-Shem, Luzzatto had advocated for a “perfected community” (קיבוץ השלימות) founded on the underlying spiritual values expressed by the ḥasid.
Luzzatto evidently considered his position in Amsterdam secure enough to produce an unsubtle polemic.
Luzzatto's decision to compose Mesillat yesharim at such a time and in such a manner seems to have been deliberate. In 1737, the famous Proops press in Amsterdam published Elijah de Vidas's Reshit ḥokhmah (Beginning of wisdom), a kabbalistic exposition of piety originally written and published in the second half of the sixteenth century. De Vidas commenced the treatise's second section, Sha‘ar ’ahavah (Gate of love), by quoting Deuteronomy 10:12–13, and devoted the later chapters of the section to the baraita of Pinḥas ben Yair. Writing for scholars of Kaballah,
de Vidas addressed only some of the steps of the ladder of holiness, leaving uninformed readers with interests piqued but comprehension lacking.
In Amsterdam, as discussed above, Luzzatto wrote introductory works, either as part of an arrangement with communal leaders or with the intention of raising a new (albeit noneschatological) following. At present, it is not clear whether members of Ets Haim asked Luzzatto for an in-depth explanation of the baraita of Pinḥas ben Yair, though the text was obviously of interest to early modern thinkers. Moses Ḥagiz, Luzzatto's relentless pursuer, addressed it in his Mishnat ḥakhamim, as would Ezekiel Landau in the coming decades.
If Luzzatto did not receive a request for an exposition on pietism, he may have simply been inspired by the new edition of Reshit ḥokhmah to promote his way of life in Amsterdam through the explication of a biblical verse and a baraita that had long interested him.
In any event, the text published by the Ashkenazic printer Naphtali Hirts Levi Rofe differed from the manuscript. The redacted version lacked the dialogue format and the opening narrative, which had explained the author's intentions and set the tone for the polemic.
Consequently, the meaning of the treatise was substantially diluted. Without the characters and the narrative that explained their conflict, intended to represent the supposed internal struggle of Luzzatto's readers, the text was little more than a stern moralizing lecture. The near print-ready status of the manuscript, completed so close to the imprint's release, suggests that Luzzatto himself did not voluntarily edit the manuscript.
It is unlikely that after finishing the most personal of all his books in the autumn of 1738, he promptly removed only those elements that bitingly and overtly critiqued the rabbinic establishment.
Mesillat yesharim—the oft-printed book through which Luzzatto became a rabbinic icon—had been subjected to an intervention prior to publication.
Luzzatto's published afterword indicates that his Ets Haim colleagues, David Meldola and Jacob Bassan, were involved in the book's publication, and that Luzzatto ultimately approved the final version: “I applaud the grace of a man after my heart, my sacred charge, my diadem and the seal on my right hand, my beloved and my friend, my master, companion and dear comrade, the distinguished sage … Jacob … Bassan … who assumed the bulk of the burden, privileging me in all stages of this project by printing, proofreading, and completing all the work in the most perfect way. Likewise his second, a man of renown, widely acclaimed, a man of reason, industrious, praised above all proofreaders, skillful at his craft, of high repute among scholars, the distinguished sage … David … Meldola….”
In addition to exhibiting the author's gratitude and affection for his friends, and signifying contemporary concern for high-quality editing, the statement implies that Bassan's “burden” consisted of labor beyond the standard proofreading and printing, of which most authors had no part anyway.
Luzzatto was evidently interested in the progress of the publication, and the text may insinuate that Bassan's “completing all the work” included actual expurgation and emendation.
Without additional sources to shed light on the editing and printing processes, one can only speculate about the altered state of Mesillat yesharim. In keeping with his self-defined role in the community, Luzzatto may have preferred a published book in edited form to an intact but unread manuscript. Perhaps Meldola and Bassan advised Luzzatto to temper his treatise on pietism. Though the work drew on Kabbalah only obliquely, and thereby did not technically fall under any ban, they may have sensed that printing the manuscript in its original form would inspire a renewed round of anti-Luzzatto condemnation. After all, Luzzatto's opponents had previously urged the Amsterdam rabbinates to guard their print shops, indicating that rabbinic authority held some power over publishing and that Ashkenazic authorities distrusted Portuguese judgment. This might explain why Luzzatto's other diluted kabbalistic works, including Derekh ha-Shem “Ma’amar ha-‘ikarim,” and “Ma’amar ha-ḥokhmah,” were not published in Amsterdam during his lifetime.
Alternatively, Naphtali Hirts Levi Rofe himself required the editing. While Amsterdam Hebrew presses did operate according to an open business model,
it is improbable that Ashkenazic printers in Amsterdam would have tolerated Luzzatto's evaluation of contemporary rabbinic culture when the current Ashkenazic chief rabbis were among his fiercest critics. As mentioned above, Eliezer Rokeaḥ preceded Luzzatto's arrival by just a few weeks, and Aryeh Leib ben Saul Löwenstamm, who had distinguished himself by calling for Luzzatto's eternal excommunication, replaced Rokeaḥ in 1740 after the latter's move to Palestine. There is no evidence of Rokeaḥ's or Löwenstamm's reaction to Luzzatto's presence in the city, though contemporary records of the Ashkenazic community are notably scarce. With the Esnoga and the Ashkenazic Great Synagogue on opposite sides of the same canal, it is not a stretch to imagine that Rokeaḥ or Löwenstamm did what they could to prevent Luzzatto from receiving free rein in the printing houses.
Ultimately, Luzzatto's autograph manuscript of what posthumously became his most famous work elucidates the limitations of both his adaptation and acceptance in Amsterdam. He was successively tolerated, accepted, and celebrated by influential people within the Portuguese community, but he was not an unquestioned or unchecked authority. While the period was arguably his most productive, his writings did not reflect the unbridled aspirations of his soul. He crafted his persona and oeuvre carefully, while retaining contempt for his opponents, concern for contemporary religiosity, and belief in his own righteousness. Luzzatto's shift from messianist to apparent quietist did not reflect a fundamental change in his mystical intentions or in his self-conception as cosmic redeemer. By April 1743, Luzzatto had determined that his position in Amsterdam—distinguished but not “perfect”—was an irrevocable barrier to his need for perishut, quest for devekut, and hope for redemption. Quitting Amsterdam for the Holy Land was the logical progression of his socioreligious journey.
* * * * *
By the end of his sojourn among Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam, Luzzatto had secured a respectable reputation. The role differed from his previous positions as precocious adolescent, beleaguered bachelor, and prospective redeemer. Over eight years Luzzatto's adversaries had not found cause to issue new bans or to publicly condemn Amsterdam's Sephardim for offering him sanctuary. Jacob Emden, whose pen frequently spewed vitriol, admitted that since Luzzatto's arrival in the Dutch city, “we have heard nothing from him that was bad. He has brought to press two small treatises, Mesillat yesharim and Derekh tevunot, with which I could find no fault.”
Luzzatto's quieted messianism and self-aggrandizement facilitated an unspoken truce with perpetually suspicious opponents. His rehabilitated image was neither wiped clean nor did it match his own conviction, but it helped normalize his name to a tolerable level within the mainstream.
As a well-known figure in a major European metropolis, Luzzatto's eight years in Amsterdam reflected significant facets of contemporary Jewish culture. His absorption into Portuguese society demonstrated the power of a single community to disregard a rabbinic collective. Western Sephardic Jews remained the distinct Nação despite intensified interaction with Ashkenazim by the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Concurrently, Luzzatto's freedom to live without perpetual harassment indicated that contemporary heresy hunters were focused primarily on maintaining order. The relative autonomy of separate communities limited widespread or absolute rabbinic power, except perhaps at the press, and hindered strong means of uprooting sparks of dissent. In addition, Luzzatto's transformations—promoting his group as a means to redemption, submitting to his opponents, adapting in Amsterdam, departing at the height of his standing—signify the crucial roles that challenges and intentions played in shaping his career. Broadly, it beckons questions about the inner lives of early modern kabbalists, particularly in their willingness and ability to relate elaborate views of the cosmos to the era's social, political, and cultural developments.