May 16, 1746, is the date on of around which rabbinical scholar, mystic and moral philosopher Moshe Chayim Luzzatto died (sources vary on both the day and the year). Luzzatto was a prolific and charismatic writer and teacher, who had the misfortune of living in the shadow of the false Messiah Shabbetai Zevi. As a consequence, many of his rabbinical contemporaries feared he would similarly lead followers astray from traditional Judaism with his kabbalistic teachings. Matters were not helped by the hints given by Luzzatto in his writings that he himself was the Messiah.
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Moshe Chayim Luzzatto was born in 1707, in Padua, in northern Italy. His father, Jacob Luzzatto, was a silk and grain merchant, and a learned man who took responsibility for his son’s early education. His mother, Diamante, was also descended from the Luzzatto family.
Moshe studied both secular and Jewish subjects with his father until he reached age 13, when he began attending a local Talmud Torah school. There, he began studying kabbalah – Jewish mysticism – as well as more standard subjects.
He began writing at an early age, both poetry and drama. By the age of 20, he had written some 150 hymns that mimicked so precisely the language and tone of biblical psalms that he was criticized by at least one rabbi of presuming to be the equal of “the anointed of the God of Jacob.” Luzzatto also wrote an allegorical drama called “Migdal Oz.”
Encounters with angels
Luzzatto was part of a group of like-minded students of kabbala, possibly at the University of Padua, and it was with them that he shared his reports of the visits he received from various divine messengers, beginning when he was 20. He spoke in particular of encounters with a maggid, an angel-like figure who brought him news about the coming of the Messiah.
In one of his written accounts, Luzzatto described how the maggid was followed by an appearance of the prophet Elijah, who told the rabbi that “Metatron [the angel], the great prince, will come to me. Souls whose identity I do not know are also revealed to me. I write down each day the new ideas each of them imparts to me."
Based on his insights, to prepare the Jewish people for the imminent messianic redemption, he and his followers formulated a code of ethical behavior that dealt with interpersonal relations as well as with study methods.
Luzzatto recorded accounts of his meetings and of his growing understanding of mystical ideas, but he did not attempt to spread his insights much beyond his own circle. But several rabbis, passing through Padua and becoming acquainted with Luzzatto’s kabbalistic thinking, began spreading the word themselves.
This stirred up the rabbinical establishment of the Veneto region, who asked Luzzatto to cease writing or speaking about the Messiah. He agreed to this, but was eventually unable to resist, with the result being that the rabbis of Venice pronounced a herem (a ban) on him in December 1734, which spread to Germany as well.
Luzzatto reasoned that he would have more freedom to think as he pleased in Amsterdam, and headed there in 1735. A fairly tranquil decade followed, during which Rabbi Luzzatto made his living as a lens grinder, while continuing to study kabbalah.
But his desire to teach was too strong. Finally, in 1743, he departed with his wife, the former Tziporah, for Palestine. There, they settled in the northeast coastal town of Acre, and it was there that the family died during a plague epidemic in 1746.
Among his most well-known writings are the book-length poem “Mesillat Hayesharim” (The Path of the Upright, 1740), a guide to overcoming the evil urge, and “Layesharim Tehillah” (Praise for the Upright), a morality play. In the century that followed, these and other works by Luzzatto became focuses of study by the Mussar movement, led by Rabbi Israel Salanter, and of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment.