Renowned as one of the great darshanim (sermonizers) of the Jewish world, Rabbi Moshe Alshich was born in Adrianople, Turkey in 5268 (1508 CE) but lived most of his long and productive life in Safed. In his youth, he studied in the yeshivas headed by Rabbi Yosef Caro in Adrianople and Rabbi Yosef Taitatzak in Salonica. Rabbi Moshe revered Rabbi Yosef Caro and referred to him on occasion as “my father.” At a relatively young age, he left for Israel together with Rabbi Caro and settled in Safed. There he was ordained by Rabbi Yosef Caro, eventually serving as one of the judges in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s rabbinical court. The story is told that one day it was revealed to Rabbi Caro that his student had merited one of the seventy facets of Torah exegesis. Accordingly, Rabbi Caro compelled Rabbi Moshe to deliver the sermon on that Sabbath. The sermon was received with great acclaim, and from then on, Rabbi Moshe was given the unsought for honor of delivering a sermon every week. From these sermons, his famous “Torat Moshe” on the Pentateuch was compiled.
Rabbi Moshe himself had many students; among them was Rabbi Chaim Vital, the redactor of the Arizal’s teachings, whom he ordained in 5350 (1590 CE). Rabbi Chaim regarded Rabbi Moshe as the greatest authority on Jewish law in the generation (after the passing of Rabbi Yosef Caro). Rabbi Chaim wrote that the soul of the great Amora Ravina (who was one of the two redactors of the Babylonian Talmud) had been reincarnated in Rabbi Moshe. Furthermore, at a certain point in Rabbi Moshe’s life, the soul of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeini was also infused within Rabbi Moshe, through the mystical secret of ibbur.
In addition, Rabbi Moshe served as one of the members of the rabbinical council of Safed dealing with important matters concerning the city. The council was headed by his Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Caro and by Rabbi Moshe of Trani (known as Mabit).
Rabbi Moshe was regarded as a kabbalist, and studied for some time with Rabbi Moshe *Cordovero. He is also listed in Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Sefer HaChizyonot (“Book of Visions”) as one of the students of the Arizal. Furthermore, in that work, Rabbi Chaim Vital expressed some disquiet regarding Rabbi Moshe. Apparently ,his teacher, the Arizal, had repeatedly warned Rabbi Chaim not to reveal the Arizal’s greatness to the world, for it would cause great damage to him and to the world at large. However, Rabbi Moshe Alshich decreed with the authority of Torah and halacha that his former student, Rabbi Chaim, reveal to him whatever he knew about the Arizal. From that time on, the Arizal accepted more and more disciples.
Despite the fact that Rabbi Moshe certainly learned kabbala from the Arizal, the latter would not accept him as a full disciple, declaring that Rabbi Moshe had come into this world in order to rectify dersush, (the allegorical and homiletical interpretation of the Torah). For this reason, whenever Rabbi Moshe sat in on the Arizal’s lessons, he would invariably fall asleep.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich passed away in Damascus, Syria some time after 5353 (1593 CE) at a venerable age.
Interestingly, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai reports that during the Chmielnicki riots and the terrible massacres of Tach v’Tat in Poland (1648-9 CE), Rabbi Moshe (some 55 years after his passing) appeared to a certain scholar, who regularly taught from Rabbi Moshe’s writings, and saved him from a bloodthirsty mob.
1) Sources: Shem HaGedolim; Encyclopedia l’Gedolei Yisrael; Introduction to Machon Lev Sameach’s edition of Chumash Torat Moshe; Encyclopedia Judaica.
2) Shaar HaGilgulim.
3) Ibbur, literally “impregnation.” The Kabbalistic doctrine of transmigration of souls (metempsychosis) whereby the soul of a saintly person attaches itself to (“impregnates”) the soul of another person in order to elevate the latter to a higher plane than his original soul root, or to invest him with powers he would not otherwise have had.
4) In Shem HaGedolim.