Rabbi Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (Baal HaSulam) (1884-1954)
Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag is better known as Baal HaSulam (Owner of the Ladder) for his Sulam (Ladder) commentary on The Book of Zohar. Baal HaSulam spent his entire life interpreting the wisdom of Kabbalah, innovating and spreading it throughout Israel and the world at large. He adapted the Ari’s Lurianic Kabbalah to our generation, and in doing so enabled everyone to study the roots of the reality in which we live, and thus perceive life’s ultimate purpose.
Because Baal HaSulam was born when the world was ready to know about Kabbalah, his writings carry a distinct “multinational” nature. He predicted processes such as the fall of Russia’s communism and globalization long before they became evident to the rest of us, and presented them in context with humanity’s spiritual correction.
Baal HaSulam was born in Warsaw, Poland and studied Kabbalah with Rabbi Yehoshua of Porsov. In 1921, he immigrated with his family to Israel (which was then called Palestine) and settled in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The rumor of his arrival quickly spread throughout the city and he soon became known for his knowledge in Kabbalah. Gradually, a group of students formed around him, who would arrive at his home in the wee hours of the night to study Kabbalah. Subsequently, Baal HaSulam moved from the Old City of Jerusalem to another Jerusalem neighborhood, Givat Shaul, where he served as the neighborhood rabbi for several years.
HIS MAJOR WORKS
His two principal works, the fruit of long years of labor, are The Study of the Ten Sefirot, based on the writings of the Ari, and The Book of Zohar with the Sulam (Ladder) Commentary. The publication of the sixteen parts of The Study of the Ten Sefirot began in 1937. The Book of Zohar with the Sulam Commentary was published in eighteen volumes between 1945-1953. Subsequently, Baal HaSulam wrote three additional volumes in which he interpreted The New Zohar. The publication of the latter interpretation was completed in 1955, after his demise.
Baal HaSulam composed a series of introductions that initiate the student into effective study of Kabbalah texts, and clarify the study method. These include “The Preface to The Book of Zohar,” “Introduction to The Book of Zohar,” “Preface to the Wisdom of Kabbalah,” “Preface to The Sulam Commentary,” “A General Preface to The Tree of Life,” and “Introduction to The Study of the Ten Sefirot.”
In 1940, Baal HaSulam published a paper he called The Nation. In his last years, he wrote The Writings of the Last Generation, in which he analyzed different types of government, and outlined a detailed plan for building the corrected society for the future.
SPREADING THE WORD
Baal HaSulam did not settle for simply putting his ideas on paper. Instead, he worked arduously to promote them. As part of his efforts, he met with prominent figures in Israel such as David Ben Gurion, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Zalman Shazar, and many others.
David Ben Gurion, the first Prim Minister of Israel, wrote in his diaries that he met with Baal HaSulam several times, and that these meetings surprised him because “I wanted to talk to him about Kabbalah, and he, about socialism.”
“Indeed we have already come to such a degree that the whole world is considered one collective and one society. Meaning, because each person in the world sucks his life’s marrow and his livelihood from all the people in the world, he is coerced to serve and care for the well-being of the whole world. … The possibility of making good, happy, and peaceful conducts in one state is inconceivable when it is not so in all the countries in the world.”
–Baal HaSulam, “Peace in the World”
An excerpt from the newspaper Haaretz, published December 16, 2004: “One day in Jerusalem of the early 1950s, Shlomo Shoham, later an Israel prize-winning author and criminologist, set out to look for Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag. …Ashlag at that time was trying to print Hasulam (literally, The Ladder), his Hebrew translation and commentary on The Book of Zohar… Whenever he would raise a little money, from small donations, he would print parts of his Hasulam.
‘I found him standing in a dilapidated building, almost a shack, which housed an old printing press. He couldn’t afford to pay a typesetter and was doing the typesetting himself, letter by letter, standing over the printing press for hours at a time, despite the fact that he was in his late sixties. Ashlag was clearly a Tzadik (righteous man)—a humble man, with a radiant face. But he was an absolutely marginal figure and terribly impoverished. I later heard that he spent so many hours setting type that the lead used in the printing process damaged his health.’”
It took over half a century for his greatness to be recognized, but today his achievements are well known. In recent years, his teaching has attracted a great deal of attention, and hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world study his works, which have been translated into many different languages. Now, anyone who truly wishes to climb to the spiritual world can easily do so.
Baal HaSulam was a fascinating and complex individual, broadminded and well-educated. He was very much involved in global events as well as in the events that occurred in Israel, where he lived. His views are considered revolutionary and far-reaching in their boldness, even today
Baal HaSulam passed away in 1954, but his ideas have been perpetuated by his successor, his firstborn son, Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag.
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