R. Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (1326-1408), the Ribash, was born in Barcelona (some say, Valencia) but emigrated in 1391 to North Africa and ended his days as a foremost Halakhic authority in Algiers. His teachers were Nissim of Gerona, the Ran (d.c. 1375) and Peretz ha-Kohen (d.c. 1370). In his Responsa collection, No.157 deals with the question of the Kabbalah. His questioner, R. Amram, had asked him various questions, one of them on this particular subject, to which he had replied. But Ribash repeats his reply in case R. Amram had not received his earlier letter. After stating this, the Ribash continues:
I informed you [in the earlier letter] that my teacher, R. Peretz ha-Kohen, of blessed memory, neither spoke of the Sefirot nor had them in mind [during his prayers]. I also heard from his [R. Peretz’s] own mouth that R. Samson of Chinon, of blessed memory, the greatest Rabbi of all his generation (I, too, knew of him, though I never met him personally) used to say: ‘I pray with the intention of an infant’, that is to say, he rejected the opinion of the Kabbalists who have in mind one of the Sefirot at one time and another at a different time, as the particular prayer requires it. And they [the Kabbalists] say that this is the meaning of the Rabbinic saying [Bava Batra 25b]: ‘He who desires to be wise should face the south [when he offers his prayers] and he who desires to be wealthy should face the north’, meaning that he should have in mind the quality of the right or the quality of the left. Also when they recite the Eighteen Benedictions they have in mind a particular Sefirah for each of the benedictions. All this seems very strange to non-Kabbalists for whom it all seems to be a form of dualism. I once heard a man with philosophical pretentions denigrate the Kabbalists, saying that the Christians believe in a Trinity while the Kabbalists believe in a Decade.
It once happened when I was in Saragossa that the venerable sage Don Joseph Ibn Susan came there; I had met him previously in Valencia. He was very learned in the Talmud, had an acquaintance with philosophy and was a Kabbalist and he was exceedingly pious and very strict in his observance of the precepts. We became very fond of one another and I once asked him: ‘How can you Kabbalists have your mind on one of the Sefirot while reciting one of the benedictions and on another of the Sefirot while reciting a different benediction? Furthermore, are the Sefirot divine that a man should address them in prayer?’. He replied, Heaven forbid that prayer be directed to other than God, blessed be He, the Cause of causes. But, he said, the matter has to be understood on the analogy of a man who has a lawsuit and petitions the king that justice be done. He begs the king to order the minister of justice, rather than the minister of finance, to attend to his case and it be would be nonsensical for him to reverse the order. Similarly, if he wishes the king to give him a gift, he will not ask the king to order the minister of justice but the minister of finance to give it to him. Similarly, if he desires the king to give him wine he will ask the king to direct his request to the chief butler and if bread to the chief baker, not the other way round. So it is in connection with our prayer. This is directed to the Cause of causes but the worshipper has the intention of drawing down the flow of divine grace to the particular Sefirah connected to that for which he offers supplication. For instance, when he recites the benediction in which prayer is offered for the righteous he should have in mind the Sefirah of Hesed, the principle of compassion, and when he recites the benediction against the minim he should have in mind the Sefirah of Gevurah which represents judgement, and so in all such instances. This is how the aforementioned saint explained the intentions of the Kabbalists and it seem to me to be a fine explanation. Yet, who compels us to enter into all this? Surely, it is better to pray to God, blessed be He, with unqualified intention and He knows how the request is to be granted, as Scripture says: ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord; Trust in Him and He will bring it to pass’ [Psalms 37: 5]. As I mentioned above, this is what the great Rabbi Samson, of blessed memory, said.
I also informed you [in the earlier letter] that my teacher, Rabbenu Nissim, of blessed memory, said to me in private: ‘The Ramban was too much addicted to a belief in that Kabbalah’. And that is why I am not addicted to this science since I have not received it from a skilled Kabbalist. Even though I have seen commentaries on the secrets of the Ramban, of blessed memory, they, too, do not reveal the root principles of this science and while uncovering a handbreadth cover many handbreadths so that some of these topics can easily be misunderstood. Consequently, I decided not to occupy myself with the mysteries.
When you ask whether the Sefirot are higher or lower than the angels, there can be no doubt that the Sefirot are higher and have been emanated prior to the angels who were emanated from the Sefirot according to the Kabbalists, and so did write Rabbi Shem Tov Ibn Gaon of blessed memory at the beginning of his Commentary to the secrets of the Ramban, of blessed memory.
Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi, of blessed memory, composed a siluk for the Day of Atonement (in more tranquil times they used to recite this in Barcelona) in which he implied that when David, on whom be peace, says: ‘Bless the Lord, ye angels of His’ [Psalms 103: 20] he hints at the world of the angels; and when he says: ‘Bless the Lord, all ye His hosts’ [Psalms 103: 21] he hints at the intermediate world; and when he says: ‘Bless the Lord, all ye His works’ [Psalms 103: 22] he hints at the lower world. Of the world of angels. He [Judah Ha-Levi] says: ‘There are many faces to the terrible of face and many backs to the terrible of back’.
The book to which you refer is by the sage R. Yitzhak Ibn Latif [d.c.1284] and is entitled Tzurot ha’Olam. I have this work in my possession. It has 27 chapters. He was the author of another book entitled Tzeror ha-Mor of 11 chapters with the same subject matter as the first. He called another little book of his, containing 100 pages, Rav Pe’alim, because it covers many topics. He did not divide this book into chapters but into sayings, 88 in number. He also composed a fine Commentary to the book Ecclesiastes according to the plain meaning of the book but inclined towards metaphysical and scientific thought. And there is further the finest of all his works entitled Sha’ar ha-Shamayyim. This is a kind of Guide for the Perplexed. It is divided into Four Parts. Part One has 28 chapters; Part Two 25 chapters; Part Three 12 chapters; Part Four 12 chapters. This is a very significant work in which the discourse follows the lines of philosophical investigation but he demolishes those opinions of the philosophers that contradict our Torah. For it seems that this sage had read widely in philosophy but was, at the same time, a competent Torah scholar and a saint. He also wrote about the reasons for the precepts in the book to which you refer. But I have not seen in this work any reference to the Ten Sefirot only to the ten degrees of the angels as recorded by the Rambam, of blessed memory, in the Sefer ha-Madda. In the book he explains everything thoroughly, except for a few matters which he conceals, saying: ‘and understand this’. But all his words in the book at which you hint [Tzurat ha-‘Olam] are obscure, without anyone being able to understand them but a greater understanding can be reached if one first reads the book Sha’ar ha-Shamayyim. In this obscure work he does refer to the Ten Sefirot but not in the manner these are found in the Kabbalah of the Ramban, of blessed memory, and those who follow in his tradition. For it appears from the book that in the author’s opinion the stages of the angels belong to the Ten. And he describes the three highest stages of the angels as fire, water and wind, and he had previously stated that the first to be created is called ‘flaming fire’ and the fourth form is the light of the sun and the fifth is the Intelligent Sphere which embraces all the spheres and the four remaining forms are those of the four elements, as he writes in chapter two of the book. This can in no way be identified with the opinions of the Kabbalists and it would seem that he made it all up in his own heart and mind without him having any tradition to this effect. He mentions this himself in chapter five of the work. So who can go to the trouble of trying to understand the new inventions of his heart when he himself has concealed them. I said, therefore, leave him to himself with no others with him. It is true that he does explain the 32 paths after the manner of the Kabbalists, namely that these are the Ten Sefirot and the 22 letters of the alphabet, the basic elements of speech, and that these are hinted at in words totally ten and 22 and this is fine. But so far as the Sefirot themselves are concerned he has chosen a way he has invented himself. So, say I, one should not rely on such matters unless they have been conveyed by a sage well-versed in the Kabbalah and, even then, it is only a ‘perhaps’.
It is obvious that there is a degree of ambiguity in this Responsum. The Ribash does not deny categorically the truth of the Kabbalah but prefers to leave this whole topic aside as of no relevance to the religious life of the non-Kabbalist. He comes close to saying, especially in his final remarks on the ‘perhaps’, that the Kabbalah may be true but its doctrines, as these were known in his day, are so obscure that it is impossible to state of them a yea or a nay and it is best to ignore them.
In the classical 16th century work on the Kabbalah, entitled ‘Avodat ha-Kodesh, the author, R. Meir Ibn Gabbai, vehemently attacks the Ribash (Part Two, chapter 13). Ibn Gabbai here pulls no punches in his defence of the Kabbalah but, living two hundred years after the Ribash, is bound to treat the Ribash with the respect due to one who had become an acknowledged Halakhic authority.
Ibn Gabbai first observes that the Ribash should have consulted the experts in the Kabbalah before deciding that it is best to leave it alone. If the claims of the Kabbalists are true then it is illegitimate to leave it alone and the Ribash is simply begging the question. The authority of the Ribash in Halakhah is undisputed but he has no right to pass judgement on matters of which he declares himself to be ignorant and thus cause would-be students of the Kabbalah to desist from the effort to understand. The philosopher quoted by the Ribash is simply stupid and no proof can be adduced from the stupid. No less a great philosopher than Maimonides admitted, towards the end of his life, that the Kabbalah was true. After praising the explanation given by Ibn Susan, it is astonishing that the Ribash can go on to reject the Kabbalah. If the Kabbalah is a true tradition, as he seems to admit, who gave him the right to decide not to use the intentions of the Kabbalists in prayer since, if the Kabbalah is true, it is essential to use these intentions, otherwise the object of the prayers cannot be realised? Applying Ribash’s own illustration, the king will say to the petitioner: ‘Why do you not go to the minister of justice for your petition to be granted’. As for the statement of the Ran to the effect that the Ramban was too addicted to this Kabbalah, by calling it a Kabbalah, meaning a true tradition, the Ran admits that it is part of the Oral Torah and hence it is the very word of God so how can one be ‘too addicted’ to the study of the truth. That is precisely what one has to be. Ibn Gabbai then proceeds to state, in the name of the Kabbalists, that the Ramban’s teachers were Ezra and Aziel, disciples of Isaac the Blind, who received the tradition from his father, R. Abraham Ibn David, who, in turn, received it from his father, R. David. In addition, Isaac the Blind, his father and grandfather, all were visited by Elijah the prophet who imparted the mysteries to them. Naturally, Ibn Gabbai himself begs the question here and was only able to turn the tables on the Ribash because the latter had seemed to admit that the Kabbalah is a true ‘tradition’. The arguments for and against the Kabbalah in the Ribash and Ibn Gabbai appear repeatedly in the polemics over the Kabbalah of the Ari in the sixteenth century and beyond but since the Ari’s Kabbalah is acknowledged to be original the appeal to a tradition handed down from initiate to initiate becomes less plausible and the main thrust of the argument for the truth of the Lurianic Kabbalah is on the grounds that these new mysteries were revealed to him by Elijah.
 On Ribash see A. B. Hershman: Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet and His Times, New York, 1943.
 Teshuvot Ribash, first edition, Constantinople, 1546; ed. I. H. Daiches, Vilna, 1878, photo-copy, New York, 1964.
 Author of the famous work on Talmudic methodology, Sefer Keritut.
 This is the Kabbalistic interpretation of the Talmudic passage. In the directions of the compass north represents judgement, the Sefirot on the left, while south represents mercy, the Sefirot on the right. ‘Facing’ right or left is taken to mean having these particular Sefirot in mind.
 The objection to the doctrine of the Sefirot as a graver heresy than the Christian is first mentioned by Abraham Abulafia (b. 1240), see Moshe Idel: Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, SUNY Press, 1988, p. 56 and see Maimonides, Guide, I, 50.
 The benediction of Al ha-Tzaddikim.
 The benediction against the sectarians, Ve-Lamalshinim in current versions of the Prayer Book.
 Hesed is the Sefirah of mercy, Gevurah of judgement.
 Ramban is Nahmanides (1194-1270), the first to refer to the Kabbalistic mysteries, in his Commentary to the Torah (ed. 10 H.D. Chauel, Jerusalem, 1959, see the Introduction ( ed. Chavel, pp. 1-9). On Nahmanides’ place in the history of the Kabbalah see A. Gottlieb: Mehkarim be-Sifrut ha-Kabbalah, Tel- Aviv, 1976, pp. 88-95.
 Since Nahmanides only hints at the Kabbalah in his Commentary various super-commentaries were composed in order to elucidate his meaning.
 An expression based on Nedarim 20b.
 Based on a saying attributed to Ben Sira in Hagigah 13a.
 Shem Tov Ibn Gaon (13th-14th cent.) was the author of the Commentary Migdal Oz to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. In this Commentary (Yesodey ha-Torah 1: 10) Ibn Gaon refers to a report that in his old age Maimonides became convinced of the truth of the Kabbalah. The Commentary by Ibn Gaon on the secrets of Nahmanides, to which Ribash refers, is entitled Keter Shem Tov, published in the work Maor va-Shemesh, Leghorn, 1839.
 A siluk is a liturgical poem.
 No doubt referring to the period before around 1367 when the Jewish community of Barcelona was accused of desecrating the Host with the resultant persecution.
 Meaning probably that there are spiritual entities both above and below the ranks of the angels.
 For Ibn Latif and the worlds alluded to here see EJ, vol. 10, pp. 1446-1448 and Sarah O. Heller Wilensky, ‘The First “Created Being” in Early Kabbalah: Philosophical and Isma’illian Sources’, in Binah, ed. Joseph Dan, Vol. 3, pp. 65-77.
 The expression Rav Pe’olim is found in 2 Samuel 23: 20 and means ‘mighty deeds’ but Ibn Latif uses it in the sense of ‘many works’ i.e. a number of separate small essays on various topics.
 I.e. on the lines of Maimonides’ Guide.
 Maimonides Yesedey ha-Torah 2: 7 lists ten degrees of angels one higher than the other.
 This is based on the mediaeval picture as described, for instance, in Maimonides’ Yesodey ha-Torah, chapters one to four.
 I.e. words in Scripture which have the numerical value of ten or 22.
 Avodat ha-Kodesh, ed. Jerusalem, 1973, pp. 65-67.
 A Talmudic saying, Shabbat 104b.
 See note 13 above for the view of Shem Tov Ibn Gaon and see my article ‘Attitudes of the Kabbalists and Hasidim Towards Maimonides’ in The Solomon Goldman Lectures, Vol. V, ed. Byron L. Sherwin and Michael Carasik, Chicago, 1990, pp. 45-55, note 35 p. 54.
 On these Kabbalists and their place in the history of the Kabbalah see Gershom Scholem: Origins of the Kabbalah, Princeton University Press, 1987, chapters three and four, pp. 199ff.
 On the role of Elijah in the early Kabbalah see Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 43.