Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, also known as the RaMCHaL after his initials, is best known for his classical work on piety, Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just). This book is studied in all Yeshivos and is considered the finest such work ever written. Indeed, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Musar movement which stressed the study of such books on piety, said, "All the classical works of Musar demonstrate that man must fear God. The Mesilat Yesharim tells us how."
More and more, however, people are also realizing that Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the past several centuries. Both his depth of thought and systematic mind are evident in all his works, which are literally filled with important basic insights. Over two hundred years ago, Rabbi Eliahu, the famed Vilna Gaon, declared that Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto had the most profound understanding of Judaism that any mortal human could attain. He furthermore stated that if Luzzatto were alive in his generation, he would go by foot from Vilna to Italy to sit at his feet and learn from him.
If one were to choose one outstanding aspect of the RaM-CHaL's works, it is his systematic approach. He does not look at various teachings as isolated facts, but as parts of an all-encompassing system. Seeing them as part of such a system, he is able to point out insights and relationships that would otherwise not be at all obvious.
One can see this in Luzzatto's three major works. This work, Derech Hashem (The Way of God), is probably the most systematic eXposition of Jewish fundamental. ever written. This is discussed briefly in our introduction, and will become immediately evident to the reader. The Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just) also reflects this approach. What the author essentially did was to explain the Talmudic saying of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, which enumerates the ten steps of drawing dose to God. He then systematically shows how many Talmudic teachings fit into Rabbi Pinchas' general framework, and discusses each one according to the level to which it pertains. In a sense, then, this work systematizes all the teachings regarding piety that are found in the scope of Talmudic literature.
His third major work, Kalach Pis'chey Chochmah (138 Gates of Wisdom) deals with the Kabbalah, and is therefore not as well known as the first two. Here again, however, Luzzatto shows his power as a systematizer. One may think that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah would resist all attempts at systematization, but not so. To some extent, the underlying system already eXisted in the works of the earlier Kabbalists, but it had never been presented in a systematic fashion. In these 138 chapters, the RaMCHaL presents the entire scope of the Kabbalah in what many authorities consider the most systematic manner ever achieved.
The source of the author's great talent for organization is not known for certain. Perhaps it is due to the fact that Luzzatto was a student of Rabbi Yitzchok Lampronti, author of the Pachad Yitzchok (Awe of Isaac), the first major Talmudic encyclopedia ever assembled. This consists of some twenty large volumes, and even today is unsurpassed as a standard reference. It is just possible that Luzzatto learned the art of organization and systematization from Rabbi Yitzchok Lampronti, and then carried it to its logical conclusion when setting forth the most fundamental and profound concepts of Judaism.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was born to Rabbi Yaakov ChaY in Padua, Italy, in the year 1707. He was a student of Rabbi Yeshiah Basan, author of the Lachmei Todah (Breads of Thanksgiving), and, as mentioned earlier, of Rabbi Yitzchok L ampronti. At a very early age, he also began to study Kabbalah under the tutelage of Rabbi Moshe Zacuto, one of the foremost Kabbalists of his generation.
Young Moshe Chaim rapidly attained a reputation as a prodigy, and it is said that "ha did not know what it meant to forget something." His contemporaries tell us that by the time he was 14 years old, he already knew by heart the entire Talmud and Midrash, as well as all the major classics of Kabbalah. At a time when the publication of a book was a major accomplishment even for a recognized scholar, Luzzatto published his first work (Lashon Limudim) at the age of seventeen.
At a very young age, Rabbi Moshe Chaim also organized a small group, whose main goal was to draw themselves as dose as possible to God. Among their rules was that some member of the group should be engaged in Torah study at all times, day and night, and that they should make devotion to God their one goal in life.
During his early twenties, between 1730 and 1735, there is evidence from his letters that Luzzatto wrote more than 40 books and pamphlets. Many of these have been lost, but it appears that most of his best known works were written around this time. One of the few works that is dated, Daas Tevunos (The Knowing Hear0,* bears the date, Thursday, 29 Adar I, 5494 (March 5, 1734). Likewise, his booklet Kelalei Chochmas Emes (Rules of Wisdom of Truth) is dated 9 Iyar, 5494 (May 13, 1734).
It seems probable that Derech Hashem was also written during this period. While many ideas appearing in this work are found in his other writings, one gets a definite feeling that the ideas are more fully developed, and the author often provides us here with deep insights that are not evident in his earlier works. The impression is therefore developed that Derech Hashem is one of the author's later works.
Many of Luzzatto's writings were circulated during this period, and the novelty of his approach drew opposition from a number of contemporary sages. Many thought it unseeming for one so young to write books on Kabbalah and other esoteric subjects. Partially as a result of this opposition, Luzzatto left his native Italy in 1735 and settled in Amsterdam.
Avoiding public life, Luzzatto set up shop as a gem cutter in Amsterdam. His fame nevertheless caught up with him, and in 5500 (1740), at the turn of the Jewish century, he published his most famous work, the Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just).
Like many other great men of his age, Luzzatto longed for the holy land, and finally, in 1743, he realized his goal, settling in Acco. He was not to enjoy a long stay there, however, and on 26 , 5506 (May 16, 1746), at the age of 39, he was killed by a plague. According to most traditions, he was buried in Tiberias, next to the tomb of Rabbi Akiba.A disciple once asked Rabbi Dov Bet, the Maggid of Mezritch (the most important disciple of the Baal Shem Tov), why Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto died at such a young age. The Mag-gid replied that the RaMCHaL's generation was not worthy of understanding his piety and saintliness.
ARYEH KAPLAN 10 Sivan, 5734