Shefa‘ tal by Shabetai Sheftel ben Akiva Horowitz (Bilzorka: Mordekhai, 1807). This kabbalistic work was issued by one of the many small presses that emerged in the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century and is printed on the type of cheap, blue-tinted paper often used by indigent printers. The stamp at center, right, indicates that the book at one time belonged to the library of Yisroel Halevi Kitover, rabbi of Felsztyn (now Skelivka, Ukr.). (Bottom) Russian censor's stamp. (Top) Inscription by another owner of the book, "Moyshe of the village of Holvits" (Golevichi?, Bel.). (YIVO)

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Horowitz Family

One of the largest and most prominent Ashkenazic families that has thrived since the fifteenth century. The Horowitz family is made up of Levites who took their name from the small town of Horovice in Bohemia; they dominated the Prague community in the sixteenth century and formed marriage alliances with other prestigious families. The Horowitz family preserved a tradition claiming that its roots went back to the so-called Golden Age of Jewish culture in medieval Spain; the name of Rabbi Zeraḥyah ha-Levi Gerondi (ca. 1115–1186) was sometimes specifically mentioned. They reached Eastern Europe after the expulsion from Spain, and produced numerous rabbis and leaders and, later, writers of the Enlightenment, scholars, musicians, and scientists. Karl Marx was one of its descendants.

One of the first influential writers and leaders of this family was Rabbi Avraham ben Shabetai Sheftel Horowitz (before 1550–ca. 1615), who lived and worked in Kraków and Lwów. Avraham was a disciple of Mosheh Isserles (Rema’), and started his career as a theologian as a Maimonidean rationalist; later in life he turned toward Kabbalah. His best-known work (among several halakhic and ethical treatises) is Yesh noḥalin (1615), a treatise written in the traditional form of an ethical will. The work instructs its readers on how to combine religious piety with social responsibility toward family and community.

Avraham was the father of the greatest scholar and writer of this family in Eastern Europe, Yesha‘yahu ha-Levi Horowitz (1565–1630), the author of the encyclopedic ethical work Shene luḥot ha-berit, known by the acronym Shlah; the exceptional honorific Ha-Shelah ha-kadosh (The Holy Shelah) was used to designate both the book and the author. Born in Prague, Yesha‘yahu served on rabbinic courts in Dubno, Ostróg, and Frankfurt am Main, and after Jews were expelled from Frankfurt in 1614 he returned to Prague and was named head of the Jewish court there. In 1621, he went to Jerusalem and became the leader of the Ashkenazic community there, dying in 1630 in Tiberias. Despite his short time in the Land of Israel, his name is associated with the great cultural and kabbalistic revival in sixteenth-century Safed, and his main work is regarded as the consummation of the teachings of that school.

Shene luḥot ha-berit is an elaborate and profound example of Hebrew Musar literature (ethical works), continuing a medieval tradition of books intended for ethical and spiritual improvement; it continues to occupy a central role among traditional Jews today. Its complex and intricate structure; comprehensive analysis; and inclusion of many classical and medieval sources, including some entire works (such as Mosheh Cordovero’s Tomer Devorah), characterize the work as a detailed presentation of Jewish ethical thought. Its vast material is subjected to the unifying power of kabbalistic terminology and worldview, which transforms the theological speculation of medieval Kabbalah into a system directing daily religious life: explaining and motivating every deed, spiritualizing in a powerful way Jewish precepts and customs, and giving direction and meaning to ethical norms and practical demands. In achieving this synthesis, Horowitz completes the process begun by other Safed writers, most notably Eliyahu de Vidas, author of Reshit ḥokhmah (1579).

Page from Shefa‘ tal, by Horowitz family member Shabetai Sheftel ben Akiva ha-Levi (Bilzorka: Mordekhai, 1807). (YIVO)

After the Shlah, the Kabbalah was no longer an esoteric doctrine of the elect but the meaningful foundation of Jewish religiosity and social behavior. The main purpose of the author—like that of most writers of Hebrew ethical treatises—was not to instruct his readers about details of correct conduct; in Judaism, this is the role of halakhic literature, which includes ethical precepts. Rather, it was to apply reasoning and to impart spiritual meaning and impetus to the performance of both ritual and ethical commandments. In this sense, it is similar to some extent to Christian via mystica literature, which directs a person toward the spiritualization of daily life. Social ethics is not the focus of such works, but rather the profound, intricate, and delicately structured relationship between the human soul and the divine realm. At the same time, the emphasis is not on innovative, original conceptions, but on presenting and organizing a vast tradition so as to express the author’s worldview.

In the Shlah, the struggle between the kabbalistic schools of Mosheh Cordovero and Yitsḥak Luria has not yet been decided. The author was still under the influence of the system of Cordovero, and of the ethics developed on that basis by Cordovero’s followers. Yet some indications of the emerging influence of the radical, revolutionary Lurianic Kabbalah can be discerned in the work, and when Luria’s school was completely victorious later in the seventeenth century, the Shlah did not lose its relevance and impact.

The work was printed in Amsterdam in 1648 (with additions by Shabetai Sheftel, the author’s son), and reprinted numerous times since. Digests of the work, in both Hebrew and Yiddish, were published by Yeḥi’el Mikhl Epstein in 1693 and reissued many times since. The influence of the book was exceptional, especially in its integration of kabbalistic conceptions with ethical and halakhic instruction. The author’s deep roots in East European society and culture made the Shlah the perfect vehicle for the rapid diffusion of kabbalistic ideas to social strata previously unaware of them. When the broad scope of the work and its complex structure seemed to present obstacles to the reader, other works, dependent on it, filled the gap of understanding.

The popular kabbalistic treatise Shefa‘ tal was written by Yesha‘yahu’s cousin, Shabetai Sheftel ben Akiva ha-Levi (d. 1619), who served as a physician in Prague and wrote several other kabbalistic and ethical works. Shefa‘ tal is a presentation of and commentary on Cordovero’s kabbalistic system, which Shabetai Sheftel tried to reconcile with some Lurianic ideas (mainly concerning the nature of the tsimtsum—in Lurianic Kabbalah, the divine contraction or withdrawal enabling creation—which Shabetai Sheftel explained symbolically). Shabetai Sheftel’s synthesis probably derived from the writings of Yosef ibn Tabul, one of Luria’s disciples. His ideas influenced later writers on the subject, including Naftali Bachrach, the author of ‘Emek ha-melekh (1649).

Another prominent writer of the Horowitz family was Yesha‘yahu’s son, also called Shabetai Sheftel (1590–1660), who served as a preacher and rabbi in Prague, Fürth, Frankfurt am Main, and Poznań; he later settled in Vienna, where he died. His best-known work is Vave ha-‘amudim (1653), six homiletical treatises that he appended as an introduction to his father’s Shlah. He also wrote additions to his father’s prayer book, Sha‘ar ha-shamayim, and to Yesh noḥalin.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Elbaum, Petiḥut ve-histagrut: Ha-Yetsirah ha-ruḥanit ha-sifrutit be-Polin uve-artsot Ashkenaz be-shilhe ha-me’ah ha-shesh-‘esreh (Jerusalem, 1990); Jacob Elbaum, Teshuvat ha-lev ve-kabalat yisurim: ‘Iyunim be-shitot ha-teshuvah shel ḥakhme Ashkenaz be-Polin, 1348–1648 (Jerusalem, 1992), pp. 63–88, 179–221, abstract also in English; Eugene Newman, Life and Teachings of Isaiah Horowitz (London, 1972); Mendel Piekarz, Bi-Yeme tsemiḥat ha-ḥasidut (Jerusalem, 1978), pp. 209–218; Bracha Sack, Shomer ha-pardes: Ha-Mekubal Rabi Shabetai Sheftel Horovits mi-Prag (Beersheva, Isr., 2003); Elliot Wolfson, “Hashpa‘at ha-Ari ‘al ha-Shelah,” Meḥkere Yerushalayim be-maḥashevet Yisra’el 10 (1992): 423–448.