Moses Hayyim Luzzato

The mysticism of the Jewish mystic and poet Moses Hayyim Luzzato (1707-1747) was based on the coming of the Messiah and the ethical cleansing of men's consciences in preparation for that day.

Moses Luzzato was born in Padua, Italy, and received his early education there. His earliest works were lyrical poems and at least one drama, called Migdal Oz (Tower of Strength). Early in his life he took up Cabalistic studies, which were more suited to his poetic sensitivity and intuitive understanding of the world than strictly rabbinic studies. Very soon he claimed to have received communications from angelic voices during mystic trances. Based on these experiences, he composed mystic meditation and Cabalistic theories.

The circle of Luzzato's followers provoked such an impression on the rabbinic authorities that they were reminded of the pseudo-Messiah Sabbatai Zevi, who had shaken world Jewry of his time. They censured Luzzato and exacted a promise from him that he would abstain from Cabalistic writing and surrender his manuscripts to the authorities. It is not clear at this distance whether Luzzato had any conscious intention of proclaiming himself as the Messiah. The messianic fervor created by Sabbatai Zevi in the previous century had not yet died down; many of his followers still believed Sabbatai to be alive and well in a distant country. Indeed, such personal messianism would not really die out in Judaism until the full force of the 18th-century Enlightenment overtook Judaism and concentrated its attention on more worldly interests. At any rate, Luzzato's popularity with his adherents and his mystical explorations seem to have continued even after his censure and abjuration.

Luzzato did not succeed in placating his rabbinic critics, and he was finally forced to leave Padua. He proceeded to Frankfurt and then to Amsterdam. There he became a diamond polisher, but he continued to write his poetry and to meditate on the Cabala. It was here that he composed his most famous works. He wrote a morality play called La-Yesharim Tehillah (Praise for the Upright), in which ethical excellence is illustrated and praised, its good effects lauded, and its redemptive value emphasized. In his well-known poem Mesillat Yesharim (Path of Upright Ones), he treated the same themes but elaborated on them poetically. Happiness and redemption are tied to an ethically good life. The poem rapidly became a classic in Jewish literature and is one of the most widely read of its kind.

Luzzato decided to go to Palestine, and he settled in Acre in 1744. It is not known whether his move was due to his pursuit of messianic ideals or to pressure from the rabbis. He perished in the plague of 1747.

Further Reading on Moses Hayyim Luzzato

A study of Luzzato is Simon Ginzburg, The Life and Works of Moses Hayyim Luzzato: Founder of Modern Hebrew Literature (1931). Useful background studies with information on Luzzato are Nahum Slouschz, The Renascence of Hebrew Literature (trans. 1909); Shalom Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn (1930); and Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 3 (1936).

Additional Biography Sources

Bindman, Yirmeyahu, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto: his life and works, Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson, 1995.

Ginzburg, Simon, The life and works of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, founder of modern Hebrew literature, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Isaacs, A. S. (Abram Samuel), The life and writings of Moses Chaim Luzzatto: a modern Hebrew poet, Washington, D.C.: Institute for Jewish Bibliography, 1989.

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