April 12, 2024
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Letters Between Samuel David Luzzatto And a Kabbalistic Rabbi in the 19th Century

Part I

I am here going to summarize an article in Hakirah, volume 31 (2022) by Daniel Klein. The article is entitled: “Let Him Bray: The Stormy Correspondence Between Samuel David Luzzatto and Elia Benamozegh.”

Klein summarizes: “Nineteenth-century Italy produced two outstanding Jewish religious figures: Samuel David Luzzatto (‘Shadal,’ 1800-1865) and Rabbi Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900). Both were staunch defenders of Jewish tradition … (but) they took polar opposite positions with regard to the value of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah. And when they proclaimed their truths to each other in a remarkable exchange of letters, sparks flew.”

These letters — which date from the years 1863-64 — were written in Italian. Because of this, they have not received the attention they deserve. Klein has done us all a tremendous service by translating much from these letters into English and publicizing them.

The Hakirah article only includes a portion of the correspondence and I am only going to include a small portion of what is in the Hakirah article. I am going to spread this over two columns.

As further background — Shadal’s great-grand uncle — Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, was a Kabbalist. But, Shadal himself concluded that the Zohar was only composed in the 13th century.

Here is a brief summary of Shadal’s views on Kabbalah:

  • Although, there was indeed a form of secret mysticism during the Talmudic period; it came to be forgotten and had no connection to the later Zohar.
  • That the Zohar referred to the post-Talmudic system of nekudot and te’amim was proof that the Zohar had to be, at least, a post-Talmudic work.
  • Kabbalistic mysticism posed a threat to the survival of the true Jewish faith.

Shadal published these views in 1852.

In 1863, Benamozegh wrote something critical of Shadal, but Shadal made no public response to this provocation. He gave vent to his feelings in a private letter to someone else. Expressing his preference to refrain from attacking Benamozegh in the open, Shadal wrote, “Penso lasciarlo ragliare — I intend to let him bray.” Unfortunately, word of this remark made its way to Benamozegh.


Benamozegh: “When you wish to pay me some disagreeable compliment, at least treat me as a beheimah tehorah …

Tomorrow, you will hear the shofar and I will hear it. What will that sound say to you? … Surely nothing other than one of the charming, but puerile reasons, that have been given outside of the Kabbalah … To hear it with devotion — to give importance to the tekiah, shevarim, teruah — will require of you an extraordinary effort of faith. For me, as you know, the matter is quite different. Every note has its importance …”

Luzzatto (all taken from one particular letter in 1863): “The trills of the shofar were (as I believe) commanded by God to put into public notice (at a time when no calendars were printed) the beginning of the year, just as on the 10th day of the year, with the same shofar, the arrival of the Jubilee year was brought into universal awareness. If today, such sounds have lost their original purpose, they still preserve (as do so many ceremonies) the immense value of reminding us of our ancient political existence, and they revive in us the feeling of nationality, which — without so many small, but repeated reminders — perhaps, might have become extinct among us, as it did among all the other ancient nations. Those trills excite in me clear ideas, profound sensations — the most edifying reflections.

The miracle of our existence animates me, it encourages me to endure in the struggles against Spinoza — against all the supposedly enlightened ones — and to risk everything, whatever may occur, in defense of a cause that has been victorious until now, and that will certainly remain victorious.

To me, that horn is the drum of a nationality, of the existence of a people that was once a nation and that today lives only in God, and that will cease to exist only when it ceases to believe in God.

I, now take in hand, (a certain Kabbalistic work) and I search therein for the mysterious value of those trills, and I understand nothing of it. But I suppose that others do understand it, and I equally suppose (for the moment) that there is a real and true interaction between the two worlds, and that true and quite real are the celestial and more than celestial effects of those trills. Then, I ask myself … Do they have anything better? Granted all their mysterious motives for the mosaic precepts, have they taken one step forward? Do they have some more advanced theory than the one which we all know — that is, that ‘God has commanded that which He desired?’

Fools! They do not know that the ultimate reason for all things is the divine good pleasure, and that on earth and in Heaven, everything that has happened could have happened in a completely different manner, if the Creator had been otherwise pleased. If our trills electrify and put in motion the most exalted words, that happens only through the divine good pleasure; any reason beyond this one does not exist, and cannot exist. And so no matter how many mysteries may be invented, nothing will ever go beyond ‘gezerat ha-melech.’

Besides, the notion that one’s execution of the divine precepts must be accompanied by sublime meditations is never in the law, and the ancient rabbis disputed as to whether the precepts can be fulfilled only if they were carried out with kavanah. Such kavanah is not that of the mystics, but is the simple consciousness of executing a divine precept. And if not even such consciousness was believed to be necessary by some of the great Sages, who would dare to deny the epithet of ‘Orthodox’ to one who cannot agree that the material execution of the divine precepts is nothing if it is unaccompanied by mystical kavanot? …

(The Zohar) contains not even half a page that could possibly belong to those personages to whom it is attributed …

By ‘simple and material mosaicism,’ I mean, for example, sounding the shofar, or hearing it sounded, without engaging in mystical kavanot, but with the sole kavanah of fulfilling a divine precept, which is holy for us for the simple reason that it was imposed upon us by God, and which had its social purposes in the Israelite republic; but which for us, in our dispersion, is a religious ceremony that sanctifies us and brings us closer to God.

One who defends the kavanot defends doctrines of which not a trace is found in the mishnah or Talmud; and one who, in so doing, considers himself Orthodox is a fanatic, which can be tolerated. But one who dares to declare heterodox someone who does not think of such things as he does — he is impertinent and insults without any shade of reason our entire antiquity, which never knew anything of kavanot …

Nor do I despise the Kabbalists for their beliefs — but they are my enemies when they insult non-mystical mosaicism; when they vilify the peshat de-oraita, the plain meaning of the Torah.

You see that our opinions are more than slightly in discord, and that we will never be able to come to agreement. But if in any case you want me as a friend, I will be one, as I am with so many others — always telling you the truth without a veil and without reticence.”


Next week, I will quote from the response of Benamozegh. Briefly, he is going to argue that peshat-based Orthodoxy is not strong enough to survive and that Shadal’s approach is too similar to that of Mendelsohn.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He continues to learn much from the writings of Samuel David Luzzatto, expertly translated by Daniel Klein.

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