February 24, 2020

Miracles from Safed

“One of the formative texts of the Safed myth, which first portrayed the town as a unique place and which was responsible for spreading word of it all around the Jewish world, is the four letters that Rabbi Solomon Shlumil of Dreznitz sent, in 1607, to his relatives in Bohemia after immigrating to Safed in 1602. These documents changed the image and history of the Upper Galilean mysterious city for contemporary European Jews. A passage from the first letter states:

And had I come to announce his eminence, all the wonders, and the great deeds of Luria, may his memory be a blessing, before all of Israel in the land of glory, here in Safed, may it be built and established quickly in our day, which were told to me by my teacher and rabbi, Mas‘ud Ma‘arabi, may God protect and bless him, and from some of the rabbis and great scholars of the Land who poured water on his hands [studied directly under him] and who saw with their own eyes wondrous things from him that have not been seen in the entire land since the days of the tanna’im. Like Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai], may he rest in peace, he had all the virtues such that he had knowledge of all the deeds of human beings and even their thoughts. He had knowledge of the wisdom that was in the countenance and soul of human beings and their incarnations and could say what evil men had been reincarnated in trees, stones, or in beasts and fowl, and he could say what transgressions a man had made from the commandments and the transgressions [he had committed] since his childhood, and he had knowledge of when amends had been made for this fault, and he had knowledge of the chirping of the birds and from their flight comprehended wonderful things, and this is like [the biblical verse, Ecclesiastes 10:20] “for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” And he comprehended all this through his piety and abstinence and holy purity.

It is hard to understand how we could not have noticed that this text, which has been read and examined so many times, contains a most significant internal contradiction. Shlumil, who in his first letter includes testimonies about the atmosphere and traditions of Safed as he felt and heard them during his years of residence there, speaks of “wondrous things from him that have not been seen in the entire land since the days of the tanna’im.” In other words, in Safed Isaac Luria (1534–1572) performed (“before all of Israel”) wondrous and exceptional deeds. With his supernatural powers he performed deeds that elicited the awe of the people of Safed, who saw these acts with their own eyes.

Shlumil records these explicit testimonies conveyed by people in Safed in his letter, and it is from this letter that European and Oriental Jewish communities formed their mythical image of Safed, centered on the figure of Luria and his miracles. But when Shlumil goes on to recount what these deeds were, the expression that gets repeated almost everywhere is “he knew”: He knew about the reincarnation of evil people in trees and stones, beasts and fowl; he knew about the transgressions of each person from birth and the amends he had made for them; he knew the meaning of the chirping of the birds and their flight.”

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