Rabbi Moshe Cordevero (the 'Ramak') of Safed
1. His Life and Works
by Rabbi Moshe Miller
Among the great luminaries of Kabbalah, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero holds a
particularly important place as one of the most prolific and systematic
exponents of the teachings of the Zohar as well as the writings of almost
all the early Kabbalists.
In the revealed aspects of Torah - the Talmud and associated works - Ramak was a student of the renowned Rabbi Yosef Caro (circa 4258-5335 / 1488-1575), author of Shulchan Aruch. The latter highly praised the acumen and vast knowledge of his young student. His greatness in Talmudic law is further confirmed by the fact that at the tender age of eighteen, Ramak was ordained by Rabbi Yaakov BeRav. Of the four men accorded semichah (rabbinic ordination) by Rabbi Yaakov - the others were Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Moshe of Trani, and Rabbi Moshe Galanti - Ramak was by far the youngest. According to the testimony of Rabbi Menachem Azariah deFano, Ramak served in Safed as a Talmud teacher and legal authority.
At age twenty, Ramak became a student of his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (author of the Lecha Dodi hymn), in the esoteric aspect of Torah - the Kabbala. Despite Ramak's formidable achievements in Talmud, he states that until he began learning Kabbala, he was as if asleep and pursuing idle thoughts (Pardes Rimonim, Intro.)
Ramak became one of the leading Kabbalists in Safed. He acted as spokesman for the group of Kabbalists headed by Rabbi Alkabetz, and he wrote several treatises explaining the fallacies of philosophy. In addition, he exhorted Torah students everywhere to study Kabbala.
Ramak led an ascetic life, part of it in self-imposed exile. These exiles are detailed in his Sefer Gerushin (Venice, 1543). Through such self-purification and penances, Ramak became worthy of the revelation of Eliyahu (Shem HaGedolim).
Among Ramak's most famous students were Rabbi Eliyahu DaVidas, author of Reishit Chochma; Rabbi Chaim Vital, later a student of the renowned Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal); Rabbi Avraham Galanti, author of Yerech Yakar on the Zohar; Rabbi Eliezer Azikri, author of Sefer Chareidim; and Rabbi Menachem Azariah DeFano (Maharam MiPano), author of many works including Asarah Maamarot, Kanfei Yonah, and Responsa of Maharam MiPano. Rabbi Menachem Azaria DeFano was one of Europe's leading Kabbalists, and he taught from Ramak's Pardes Rimonim regularly. Similarly, Rabbi Yeshayahu Hurwitz, author of Shnei Luchot HaBrit (Shelah), considered himself a student of Ramak and quoted extensively form his works. In the last year of Ramak's life, the Arizal came to Safed. He too studies under Ramak, whom he refers to as "our teacher."
At the young age of forty-eight, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero passed away in Safed on 23rd of Tammuz, 5330 (1570). In his eulogy, the Arizal declared that Rabbi Moshe was so pure and saintly that his death could only be attributed to the sin of Adam. According to the Arizal's testimony, the bier bearing Ramak to his burial place in Safed was preceded by a pillar of fire.
Ramak wrote prolifically. Among his works are:
Pardes Rimonim: The most renowned of Ramak's writings, the Pardes systematizes and expounds the entire spectrum of Kabbalistic thought until his time, resolving many apparent contradictions and hundreds of long-unanswered questions.
Or Yakar: A monumental commentary on the Zohar, this work explains numerous passages from Zohar, Tikunei Zohar; Zohar Chadash and other kabbalistic classics.
Or Ne'erav: An introduction to Kabbala.
Shiur Komah: A treatise dealing with the structure of the worlds and the sefirot.
Eilima Rabbati: A systematic and highly explanatory approach to the Or Ein Sof and the sefirot as well as other kabbalistic themes. The book begins with a polemic against those "who distance themselves from learning Kabbala."
Tomer Devorah: A treatise integrating ethical exhortation with kabbalistic teachings concerning the thirteen attributes of mercy found in Micah, and a kabbalistic explication of the concept of Imitatio Dei.