Moses de León Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Through his lifework, the Zohar, Moses de León exercised the greatest influence on Judaic religious thought after the Talmud and the Bible.

Early Life

Rabbi Moses ben Shem Tov de León was an itinerant scholar who spent the greater part of his life wandering from town to town in his native province of Castile. Although few concrete personal details are known of these years, his writings reflect the social and religious unrest of his times. In the thirteenth century, Spain was still divided, Muslim and Christian, with Christian Spain slowly but steadily gaining the upper hand. Large numbers of Jews were now Christian subjects either as a consequence of the Reconquest or because they were forced to flee Muslim Spain during the increasingly violent persecutions of the Almoravids and the Almohads, who had entered Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and tolerated no religious dissension even among their own people. During the era of the taifas, the previous Arab rulers, before the arrival of the fanatical newcomers, the Jewish communities had been prominent and respected, and Jewish intellectuals had blossomed in the civilized cosmopolitan atmosphere of al-Andalus. In fact, the peninsula, both Christian and Muslim, was to produce some of the greatest philosophers of Jewish history.

The most famous and most controversial of the religious thinkers was Moses Maimonides (died 1204) of Córdoba, who interpreted basic Judaic religious beliefs and traditions in the light of Aristotelian rationalism. His Dala-lat al-Ha’rin (1190; Guide of the Perplexed, 1881) became one of the cornerstones of medieval Jewish philosophy and, through its Latin translations, influenced the writings of men of many divergent beliefs, not least among them Saint Thomas Aquinas. As conditions in the Jewish communities began to worsen, however, for many there was cold comfort in pristine rational arguments. Earlier, in the name of faith and revealed truth, many Jewish traditionalists, scandalized, had attacked Maimonides’ teachings as a form of heresy. Now their protests were united with the yearnings of a beleaguered people who needed something in which to believe.

Both groups found a source of strength in the uniquely Jewish mystical expression of the Cabala. The tradition of the Cabala, which literally means “received,” traces its roots back to Abraham, but the term came to mean the mystical beliefs and practices which entered Europe through Italy from Palestine and Babylonia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There were originally two great schools of Cabalistic thought in Germany and the Provençal region of France, but the movement reached its zenith in Spain in the Jewish communities of Barcelona, Burgos, Gerona, and Toledo. Here the new theosophy merged with an intellectual Judaic tradition well into its golden age and refined its characteristic admixture of Gnostic and Neoplatonic elements.

The basic tenet of the Cabala is that the visible world is merely a reflection of a greater unseen world; the two worlds are interdependent, their influences flowing back and forth. An action in one will cause an equal repercussion in the other. Glimpses of this hidden reality could be read, for example, in every word, name, number, and syllable of the Torah, if one knew the code. This reading was the task and obligation of the Cabalistic masters who could interpret these mysteries of spiritual revelation. Moses de León was one of the teachers of the Cabala who spread its doctrines during his travels through Castile and through his writings. In Shoshan Edoth (The Rose of the Testimony) and Sepher Hermon (The Book of Hermon), he attempted a mystical Cabalistic treatment of the Ten Commandments. He seems to have used Guadalajara as his home base until around 1292, when he finally settled in Ávila. The rabbi then dedicated the rest of his life to the reworking and circulation of the manuscripts of the work that was to become the bible of Cabalistic thought, the Sefer ha-Zohar (the book of splendor; usually called simply Zohar).

Life’s Work

The Zohar was the overriding preoccupation and great accomplishment of de León. It is not one work, but rather a miscellanea, written partly in Aramaic and partly in Hebrew, of biblical interpretation, mystic theology, prophecy, and moral and ethical teaching generally expounded by well-known rabbinical philosophers. The most famous and most quoted passages constitute a commentary on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. A summary of the prevalent Cabalistic concepts of its time, the Zohar, with a vocabulary and set of correspondences all its own, sets out to reveal not only the mystical significance underlying all Judaic theology and edicts but also the hidden relevance of all material creation. Man is acclaimed as the unifier, the conjunction of the visual and spiritual worlds. By the end of the Middle Ages, the Zohar, with its appeal to faith and the heart, passionate at times in its lyrical beauty, had captured thousands in its mystical web. Paradoxically, however, the man whose crowning achievement it was, disclaimed the honor.

De León never accepted authorship of the Zohar. Instead, he circulated the manuscripts, ostensibly as a type of editor, and attributed their actual writing to Rabbi Simon bar Yohai, a famous Hebrew sage who lived in Palestine in the second century. Pursued by victorious Romans, bar Yohai hid in a cave for thirteen years, legend asserting that he spent the time mastering the secrets of the universe. When questioned as to how he obtained the document, de...

(The entire section is 2356 words.)