Halacha And Kabbalah (Part 4): When Kabbalah Supersedes The Traditional Halacha

It would seem appropriate that the actual kabbalistic texts be subdivided into categories based on who wrote them. For it is quite certain, for instance, that a quote from the Zohar, which we consider a part of Chazal, can’t be equated to a quote from the writings of the Arizal. Furthermore, based on the idea that we have mentioned that the Talmud supersedes the kabbalah, we need to verify how we view the opinions of the poskim against the views of the Kabbalists. The Kenesses Ha’Gedolah that we quoted in the previous installment mentions both together, which shows us that we do not elevate the opinion of a Kabbalist posek over one who is not known for his knowledge of kabbalah.

The Arizal, who lived from 1534-1572, would be considered squarely within the timetable of the Achronim. He is a bit younger than the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles) and his older cousin the Maharshal (R. Shlomo Luria), and much younger than the Beis Yosef (R. Yosef Karo). His words should have no more standing than any Rishon, nor even the aforementioned Achronim who are the recognized poskim of that era. This same concept should apply in each generation. The subsequent generation gave rise to the Rema MiPano (1548-1620), for instance, who was an acknowledged posek and Kabbalist. However, we only find the later poskim quoting from his halachic works, not his kabbalistic ones, giving him his stature based on the former. Further, nowhere do we find his opinion considered greater than that of the somewhat younger, but highly revered, Bach (1561-1640).

This process should continue throughout the ages, and nowhere in the classic halacha seforim do we find the opinions of a Kabbalist being considered greater, or weighted heavier, than those of a renown posek. R. Shlomo Aviner even writes that one need not take upon themselves a stringency of the Zohar over a ruling in the Shulchan Aruch. Certainly, then, one need not give precedence to a kabbalistic decision of the Arizal above a ruling in the Shulchan Aruch (despite the statements of the Chida to the contrary, as we shall discuss further below).

However, while the above has always been the way that the Ashkenazi, non-Chassidic communities, have viewed the halachic process, this is not true for all communities in the Jewish nation. Many Chassidic and Sephardic communities have elevated the kabbalah into a more primary role. On the other hand, R. Ovadia Yosef fought against elevating the kabbalah in such a manner, and he himself held that the views of the Beis Yosef were sacrosanct even when they were against a ruling found in the kabbalah.

The Sephardim, however, do have a tradition from the Chida (1724-1806) — who was both a major posek and Kabbalist — to follow the Arizal over the rulings of the Beis Yosef. Both of the later main Sephardic halacha seforim/poskim — the Ben Ish Chai (1835-1909) and the Kaf Ha’Chaim (1870-1939) — follow this method of following the kabbalah. It was this train of thought that R. Ovadia Yosef fought against, though, and it is possible that his disapproval was based on the aforementioned Kenesses Ha’Gedolah.

Similarly, one of the major original objections to Chassidus was their placing of too much weight and focus on kabbalah and having it supersede the traditional halachic rulings. While the overly strong negative attitude towards kabbalah at the time was perhaps a reaction to the negative consequences of the Shabbetai Tzvi debacle, based on all we have said it is unclear to this author what the halachic reasoning for following this path was. (Some have contended that it was based on the Magen Avraham’s influence, but this makes little sense as he held like the Kenesses Ha’Gedolah.)

In conclusion, the main Ashkenazi approach is not to allow kabbalah to supersede the halacha. Indeed, R. Moshe Feinstein writes (OC 4:3) that the Arizal is to be viewed as just one of the many revered poskim, not the supreme one. This is also the opinion of even the Sephardic posek R. Ovadia Yosef in Yabia Omer (OC 9:105) and other places.

Read all parts of this series here.

Ta’amei Ha’Mitzvos (Conclusion): A Reason; Not The Reason

Parshas Chukas: The Snake Above