By Israel Drazin
I mentioned Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz in my two-part article on the basic notion of mystics, the sephirot, and the Friday night hymn Lecha Dodi. I will now give some information about this mystic.
Alkabetz (c. 1500-1580) wrote several books but is best known as the author of the very popular Friday night hymn Lecha Dodi, which most people think was composed to extoll the Sabbath, but is actually a mystic prayer attempting to encourage the joining of two parts of the ten parts of the Sefirot, the male element Tipheret with the female one Malkhut, also called Shekhinah.
He lived in Safed, Israel, to which he came in 1535, when the city was populated with some of the greatest mystical personalities, men who not only impacted the development of mysticism by their writings and the practices they invented, but also on all of Judaism who accepted many of the mystical practices because it was performed by pious men, without knowing the origin of the practices or their meaning. An example of this is Lecha Dodi, previously mentioned, and staying up the entire night of the holiday of Shavuot to study. These men included Yitzchak Luria, known as Ari; Joseph Karo, the author of Shulchan Aruch, a code of Jewish law, who said he received messages from an angel; Moses Alsheich and Alkabetz’s brother-in-law Moses Cordovero, both of whom wrote books on mysticism.
The group of mystics had interesting practices. One was called gerushin, divorcing one’s self. Based on the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119a, which speaks about going out to greet the Sabbath, the same source that lies behind Lecha Dodi, they would go out of Safed toward the cemetery to greet the Shabbat (although this may be a code for the Shekhinah). They say that they received a spiritual high from the trip (most likely different than the high joggers get when they run, but there is a resemblance).
Alkabetz had many notions that others may not want to accept. He was convinced, for example, that the biblical Esther was married to Mordecai, was taken from her home by officials of the king and later had to live with him, but she would often sneak out of the palace and have relations with her husband Mordecai.
He, like many mystics, believed that people can attain insights by prostrating themselves at the graves of tzadikim, righteous men. This notion was accepted by many non-mystics.