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Who Really is a "Kosher"
Rabbi & Kabbalist

A Lesson of Relevance

by Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2004 by Ariel Bar Tzadok.  All rights reserved.

From time to time I receive a question asking me to ascertain if the Rabbinic credentials of certain Rabbis are indeed kosher by Halakhic standards.

I am surprised that this question has popped up as often as it has and therefore I find it necessary to “pen” these few words.  I do not want to write an extended Halakhic and historical discourse on the parameters of Semikha (Rabbinic ordination).  Rather I wish to outline the practice of Orthodox Rabbinic ordination as it is practiced and accepted now today in all the world’s Orthodox communities.  After this, I wish to add a few words about who is a kosher Kabbalist.

While the study of Gemara is the bedrock of all Torah education, extensive Talmudic knowledge alone does not make one qualified to be a Rabbi.  First and foremost a Rabbi must be an expert in Jewish Law.  More than this he has to be tested to ascertain that this is true.  Even more than this, once he has passed his tests, the Rabbi is given authority to judge matters of Halakha; in other words, he is given the authority to decide matters of practice.

As accepted today, Rabbinic ordination is based upon the study of three (and for some) four general areas of Halakha.  First and foremost are the three areas of Kashrut Law studied, these are (1) the laws of salting, (2) the laws of meat and dairy, and (3) the laws of forbidden mixtures.  The second area of required study is the Laws of Shabat.  The third area of study is the Laws of Niddah (family purity).  In some circles the Laws of Mourning (Avilut) are also studied.

Now, let us define what I mean when I use the word “study.”  Study is an involved process covering much more than the simple text of the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) and its commentaries.  Although some ordination programs study only this last stratum of material, nonetheless, this approach is viewed as being significantly inferior.

Halakha study begins with the Gemara, the source of the Halakha must be understood in depth.  Whatever parameters were originally set by our Sages must be understood as well as the reasons why they so ordained something to be the way it is.  Yet, the Gemara is only the first stop on the Halakha journey.  We proceed to review the earlier Gemara commentaries that interpret the Gemara and lay down precedent for the observance of law.  Amongst these commentaries are those known as the RIF (Rabbi Yitzhak Alfassi) and the ROSh (Rabbeynu Asher).

Once these Talmudic commentaries have been reviewed and their lessons digested one continues to study the early law code of RaMBaM, for although in many cases Jewish Law today does not follow the RaMBaM, still in many cases, especially in those cases not covered by other codes, the Law indeed follows RaMBaM’s view of it.

After studying the RaMBaM, we delve into the Law Code known as the Tur.  The Hebrew word Tur means row.  Its author Rabbi Ya’aqob (who was the son of the ROSh) reorganized Jewish Law into four set general categories of modern application.  In other words the Tur left out of his code the laws relating to the Holy Temple, the Monarchy and the like, which are not applicable today.  Thus the four categories or rows are called the Arba Turim, or simply the Tur.

The Tur is a very important stop on the Halakhic journey.  Its study is essential for understanding the development of Halakha.  But just as important as is the Tur is its most famous commentary.  Rabbi Yosef Karo authored an extensive commentary on the Tur outlining within it an almost complete encyclopedia and history of Jewish Law, often beginning with the Gemara discussion and proceeding to discuss numerous other Halakhic opinions before concluding with his own.

This commentary of Rabbi Karo is called the Beit Yosef.  It is extensive and many times the size of the Tur itself.  So great is it in volume that Rabbi Karo himself after completing it penned a condensed compendium of his Halakhic summaries.  The abridged Beit Yosef of his, he called his “set table.”  In Hebrew, the set table is the Shulkhan Arukh.

The Shulkhan Arukh follows the Tur is being organized into the four general categories of Jewish Life.  The first section is called Orah Haim, (the Way of Life) and deals with everyday laws about prayer and holidays, including the Shabat.  The second section called Yoreh Deah, (to Teach Knowledge) deals with matters that usually require a Rabbis intervention such as Kashrut laws, family purity laws and the laws of mourning.  The third section called Even HaEzer (the Rock of Help) deals with those laws having to do with women, such as marriage and divorce.  The forth section entitled Hoshen Mishpat, (the Breastplate of Judgment) deals with the laws of courts and monetary matters.

Therefore, we must understand that without a thorough knowledge of the Beit Yosef commentary, the laws of the Shulkhan Arukh can never be fully understood.  One must know well the source of a thing in order to understand the thing itself.

Yet, even the Shulkhan Arukh is not the last stop on our Halakhic journey.  Although Rabbi Karo intended his Halakhic views to be acceptable to all communities Sephardic and Ashkenazi alike this was not to be the case.  However a contemporary of Rabbi Karo upon receiving the Shulkhan Arukh wrote a not-to-small amount of additions to the text.  This Rabbi, Moshe Isserles, called his additions of Ashkenazi practices the “tablecloth,” or in Hebrew, the Mapah.  Today the Mapah is printed as an integral part of the Shulkhan Arukh and lays the foundation for Ashkenazi practice.  While Sephardim usually do not accept Rabbi Isserles, also known as the RaMaH, in many cases they do.

The Shulkhan Arukh was written over four hundred years ago.  Many are the commentaries written on it since then.  Many are the Rabbis who have accepted and not accepted its rulings.  Yet, each and every time that a Rabbi expresses his Halakhic opinion, he must simply not proclaim it, but rather he must validate it by showing that his opinion is supported by the long chain of Halakhic authorities. 

Numerous Rabbis have written numerous texts about their Halakhic views.  These books are called She’elot u’Teshuvot (questions and answers), also known as ShooT or Responsa.  These lay down the precedent about how Jewish Law is understood and practiced.  There are literally thousands of Responsa works.  Each Rabbi of each community in each generation has written one. 

A Rabbi today therefore has to be well trained to not only know the Gemara and law codes, but also the many Responsas of his community and of other communities as well.  Only with such a comprehensive knowledge can one truly come to understand the proper parameters of Jewish Law and thereby judge things accordingly.

Once one has made the journey along the Halakhic road and mastered each one of these stops along the path, then comes the hard part.  One must sit and be tested on the whole.  The test is not just a review of the texts and the opinions of the commentators, no, you are also tested to see if you can “think on your feet.”  In other words, rather than memorize, you must be able to show that you can maneuver the material and not just recite it.

Traditionally, Rabbinic ordination is not given by an institution or by a Yeshiva.  It is given directly by a Rav personally to his student.  Indeed, when a Rabbinic ordination document is drawn up, it is authority rests upon the one who issued it.

Therefore, in order for one to honestly and properly be called a Rabbi, one must have gone through the above mentioned course of study and passed the necessary tests associated with them and then be given the authority to judge Jewish Law by his individual Rabbi who taught and tested him.  Only one who has accomplished all this should truly be called a Rabbi and relied upon to have Halakhic authority.

In all due, respect anyone can say anything and express it as his Halakhic opinion, but what makes such an opinion valid, if not the extensive thought and study going in behind it. Without Halakhic authority and validation, many Halakhic opinions can cause more harm than good because innocent, yet uneducated people come to believe these views as being valid expressions of Torah Law when in fact they can be outright violations of such.  I have personally seen this happen many times.

Therefore, to conclude this matter, when someone claims that he is a Rabbi, make sure that indeed his claim is backed up by his extensive learning and testing in Halakha and that his Rabbinic ordination is based upon this and nothing else.

I have seen all too many times when someone claims that they received their ordination from a respected “Rebbe,” not based on expertise in Jewish Law, but rather because the person works well with others, inspires them or makes them happy.  All these things are well and good, but they do not make one a Rabbi. 

Therefore, all those who claim to have Semikha (Rabbinic ordination) but have not gone through the legitimate paces should not be considered Rabbis and they should be honest enough not to call themselves such. 

A Rabbi is one who has worked hard to earn his title.  It is not to be taken lightly and used undeservingly by those less qualified.

Now that we have addressed the issue of the Rabbi, let us briefly address the issue of who is a kosher Kabbalist.

Becoming a kosher Kabbalist requires of one a lot more than merely becoming a Rabbi.  While a Rabbi is an expert on Jewish Law, this is nonetheless merely an academic acquisition similar to a Master degree from a college.  To be a Kabbalist requires of one much more than academic accomplishments.

The source of what defines a Kabbalist is obviously the Kabbalah itself, specifically the Kabbalistic writings, most specifically the Holy Zohar and the Works of the Ari’zal. 

Not only must these be mastered academically, they must also be put into practice.  In other words, a Kabbalist is one who observes Jewish Law in accordance to the Kabbalah, and more so, performs the practices of piety over and above the requirements of law that enables one to cultivate spiritual sensitivity and to bond personally with HaShem in holiness.

Here is where we separate the kosher Kabbalist from the phony.  An authentic Kabbalist first and foremost must be totally observant of all Halakha, which he fulfills even more strictly than the non-Kabbalist.  The authentic Kabbalist lives his life according to the Kabbalah and Jewish Law as taught by it.  Remember this, the Kabbalah does not ever contradict Jewish Law and never supercedes it.  Anyone claiming to be observing something in accordance to the Kabbalah that contradicts Halakha is a liar and a fraud.  Be aware of such charlatans.

An authentic Kabbalist requires of his students to also be strictly observant of Jewish Law in accordance to the Kabbalah.  His purpose in teaching his students Kabbalah is to make them more holy and more close to G-d. 

The authentic Kabbalist above all must first be an expert in Kabbalah.  He must know the original Kabbalistic texts in their original languages and he had to learn them directly from another authentic Kabbalist. 

Merely picking up the Kabbalah books and learning them does not make one a Kabbalist.  One needs to study with an authentic Kabbalist who can teach one the many things about how to properly understand what the Kabbalah texts really mean. 

Remember, Kabbalah means “to receive.”  What is “received” is the correct understanding of this highly metaphorical system of mystical understanding.  Without one “receiving” the proper “keys” from an authoritative teacher of Kabbalah, one cannot be said to have “received.” Thus such a one has not really studied authentic Kabbalah, and obviously such a one is not an authentic Kabbalist.

Therefore, all these so-called Kabbalah teachers and centers, whose teachers are not fully observant of Halakha and do not require such of their students, all the more so if they have not mastered the original Aramaic and Hebrew language of the original Kabbalistic texts are by no means legitimate Kabbalah teachers.

Indeed, even with the best of intents, such improperly trained so-called Kabbalah teachers can often cause more harm than good by teaching lessons under the name of Kabbalah which in fact have nothing to do with Kabbalah at all.  Indeed, mistaken Kabbalistic ideas can even bring one into the forbidden realms of idolatry.  Therefore one must be very careful from whom one learns Kabbalah.

In conclusion, my intent with this small essay is to help make the reader aware as to who should be accepted as an authentic Rabbi, decider of Jewish Law, and Kabbalist.  There are indeed many excellent Torah teachers in the world who may not meet the specific criteria to be called a Rabbi or Kabbalist.  This most certainly does not disqualify them or their often brilliant and inspirational teachings. 

Yet, remember this, all true Torah teachers, Rabbis, Kabbalists or not, all share some things in common.  They all accept the Torah as it was given by G-d to Moses on Mt, Sinai, they all accept and live by 13 Principles of Judaism as enumerated by RaMBaM, they all live lives in full accordance to Halakha and teach others to do the same. 

In light of this and in light of all the misinformation available today under the name of Torah and Kabbalah, please, choose your Rabbi wisely.


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