Though Rabbi Moshe Chaim is best known for his masterly ethical work, Mesillat Yesharim, probably the most popular musar work in Jewish literature, his main focus in most of his numerous works was on the kabbalah.
Born in Padua, Italy, into a distinguished family, his genius was obvious from a very early age. Besides his complete mastery of the entire Biblical, Rabbinic, and Kabbalistic literature, he was thoroughly educated in the science and literature of the time. He was the author of three full-length plays, which have been published, in modern editions. Unfortunately, his preoccupation with kabbalah and the impact he made on the young, aroused opposition and false suspicion of Sabbatean influence. About 60 years ago, a huge cache of letters was found (published by Dr. Simon Ginzburg in 1937) which describes at length in his own words, the persecution that he endured.
Eventually, he left Italy and settled in Amsterdam. In 1740, at the age of 33, he published the Mesillat Yesharim, which contains nary a Kabbalistic word. It is a moving, inspiring work describing how a thoughtful Jew may climb the ladder of purification until he attains the level of holiness. At least three English translations of this work have been made. In 1743, Reb Moshe Chaim left for Eretz Yisrael with his family, arriving in the same month that the sainted R. Chaim ben Atar died. Little is known of his life in the Holy Land and just a few years later, he and his family perished in a plague.
Though most of R. Moshe Chaim’s opponents are long forgotten, his profound spirituality continues to touch and inspire Jews of all groups. Both the Gaon of Vilna and the Maggid of Mezeritch were great admirers. In recent years, largely through the efforts of the late Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, a new edition of his works have been published, including several heretofore unpublished manuscripts. And, in one of the standard texts of Modern Hebrew literature, R. Moshe Chaim is hailed as the father of Modern Hebrew literature.