Sunday 28 February 2016

073) THE ALEPPO CODEX - The Mystery Surrounding the Most Important Manuscript in Jewish History:


Before Moshe passed away, he wrote thirteen Torah scrolls. He gave one to each of the twelve tribes and the thirteenth Torah was placed in the Sanctuary. Later, that same scroll was deposited in the Holy of Holies of the First Temple.

The purpose of this thirteenth scroll was to serve as a standard against which all other Torah scrolls were to be checked. Whenever a new Sefer Torah was written, it had to be checked against an authoritative Master Torah text, to ensure its accuracy, before it was allowed to be used. This was a form of ‘quality control’ built into our tradition to keep every word and letter of the Torah as authentic as possible.

There were times, however, when this thirteenth Torah was almost lost, such as during the reign of Achaz (578-562 b.c.e.) when there was an active campaign to destroy Torah scrolls. At that time the cohanim, or priests, hid this crucially valuable scroll in order to preserve it for future generations.

About a hundred years later it was discovered by King Yoshia (around 458 b.c.e.)[26] who, under threat of invasion, hid it again in a catacomb and it has never been seen since.

(The Jewish kings all had a special commandment to write their own Torah scrolls, which up to now, were checked against Moshe’s thirteenth Torah, and after their deaths, these highly accurate scrolls were kept with the Sanhedrin.)


During the Babylonian exile (423-353 b.c.e.) there was a profound decline in Torah study and it became impossible to find precise Torah scrolls. Ezra wrote a Torah that was to become the new Master Scroll.  He is said to have found three scrolls which were all considered to be standards, but they had slightly variant readings. To rectify the situation, it was decided to accept the readings of two of the three scrolls which matched each other, and that became the new standard. Ezra's Torah was used during the period of the Second Temple. 

During the persecutions that took place in the century following the destruction of the Second Temple, it became difficult to find exact copies of the Torah. That is why, during this period, there arose some slight discrepancies between versions of some verses as recorded in the Torah compared to those same verses as quoted in the Talmud.[1]


The next of the great baalei ha’mesora (traditionalists) was Aaron (Ben Moshe) Ben Asher, who prepared the next standard scroll, which later became known as the Aleppo Codex. This was the third Master Codex, and the text we follow today is largely based on that work.[2]

The story of the Aleppo Codex is most intriguing and not without its share of mystery.


As is well known, Torah texts do not have any vocalisation (nekudot or markings) around the letters, which sometimes makes their correct pronunciation and punctuation a matter of dispute. Also, the spelling of the words themselves can be unclear. It became very important to establish and endorse a standard text that had absolute consensus. Tiberius had become a centre for Torah textual experts, grammarians and scribes. For centuries they gathered all the texts and scrolls they could find and worked on formulating and authorising the most accurate Torah text in existence at that time.

The Aleppo text was originally written by the famous scribe Shlomo Ben Buya’a, but was painstakingly over many years corrected and endorsed by Rabbi Aaron Ben Asher[4] in 920 C.E.

This codex was complete in that it comprised all twenty-four books of Tanach and, interestingly, this Codex was written with vocalisation and cantillation marks (which is halachically permitted for a codex but not for a Torah scroll used for public reading in a synagogue).


Surprisingly this master codex was transferred from Tiberias to the Karaite community of Jerusalem at the beginning of the 11th century.[5] The Codex was, however, was made accessible to all Jews, Karaite and mainstream rabbinical Jews, to peruse at will. (This appears to have been one of the conditions of its transfer from Rabbinite to Karaite possession).


In 1099, during the First Crusade, the Karaite synagogue was attacked, and the Codex was stolen but not damaged because it was known to be a priceless document. It was soon ransomed by the Jews of Cairo (Fostat) who paid a tremendous price for its return to Jewish hands.

Rambam (1135-1204) was at that time in Cairo and he was able to view it and endorse it as authoritative. He writes that he consulted this very text and considered it to be the most accurate and authoritative Torah text against which all other texts could be proofread. Rambam wrote; “This was used as the standard text for the correction of Torah scrolls. Everyone relied on it as it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself. And I have relied on it for the Torah scroll that I wrote.”[3]


It remained in Cairo for about three hundred years when a descendant of Rambam took it to Aleppo (in what is today northern Syria). Aleppo became its protective home for the next five hundred years. It was lovingly sheltered in an iron safe (with two locks and two key custodians), and it assumed the title Keter Aram Tzova (The Crown of Aleppo)[6]

According to tradition the safe was placed at the entrance to a cave, said to be the cave of Elijah the Prophet, where he had stayed while in exile.
During this time the Codex took on legendary and supernatural dimensions, with the Jews of Aleppo being extremely protective of it, believing that they would remain safe in Aleppo as long as their Codex remained intact. 
In more recent times the Syrian rabbis refused to allow people access to the Codex and would not allow anyone to photograph it either.


In 1948, with the Establishment of the State of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism, the Aleppo Synagogue was attacked and burned during an anti-Israel uprising.

It is at this point, sadly, that the accounts as to what exactly happened to the Codex begin to vary, depending on the interest groups. Some say parts of the Codex were burned in the fire. Others report that it was not a large fire and that parts of the Codex were in fact looted. Still, others say it was hidden in secret locations in order to protect it, and that the story that it had been completely destroyed in the fire was simply a decoy. 

A few years later, in 1958, Israeli President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi (1884-1963)[7] arranged for the Codex to be smuggled to nearby Turkey (in a washing machine), and soon thereafter it was taken to Jerusalem. It was placed at the Ben-Zvi Institute[8] for safe keeping. 

Unfortunately, after being safe for a thousand years, a third of the Codex (about 200 sections) was now found to be missing, including the majority of the Five Books of the Chumash.

Speculation was rife with conspiracy theories abounding. Many accuse the European Zionists of discrimination towards the Jews from Arab countries. Stories of them confiscating ancient manuscripts from Yemenite Jews, for example, are backed up with letters from Yemenite rabbis to the Israeli government, protesting such actions. The Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Aleppo actually took legal action against the State of Israel for what they said was ‘stealing the Codex’ from them. The result of which was an agreement that they would share some form of joint ownership of the document, although it would remain at the Ben-Zvi Institute. 

It has been established that numerous other ancient documents went missing from the same institute under mysterious circumstances, and some contend that the missing sections were stolen from the institute by a member of staff. It is also clear that the Codex was not preserved correctly at the institute, but was simply placed in ‘an ordinary office cabinet’, and that ‘sections of the manuscript that had been legible only a few years before could no longer be read.’[9] During this time the institute refused to allow the Codex to be displayed or photographed.

Research author Matti Friedman writes; ‘After surviving a thousand turbulent years, it was betrayed in our own time by our own people, those charged with guarding it.’[10]

Two missing sections have already turned up, one in 1982 and the other in 2007. Many believe that members of the Aleppo Jewish community tore off sections of the Codex when it was ‘burned’ in the fire,[11]and still have them privately hidden away.

Today, what’s left of the Codex, has a permanent safe home at the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, in Jerusalem.[12]

The search continues, for more missing sections of this most important and historically valuable Torah document.

Ezra Dabach, one of the last key holders of the Aleppo Codex



In some editions of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, it is written that the Ha’azinu Song[13] must have seventy lines, and that there must be an open space in every sentence so that every line is divided into two. Fortunately, this section is still existent in the Aleppo Codex today, so we can compare it to Rambam’s description to see whether it matches.

Surprisingly the Codex does not have seventy lines but sixty-seven instead. This seems to refute the notion that the Aleppo Codex is the same Codex that Rambam used and referred to.

However, on examining older and therefore more accurate manuscripts of Rambam, the number of lines in the section is not seventy but indeed sixty-seven (and the words at the beginning of each line also correspond to the same words as stipulated by Rambam)!

[Incidentally, this also happens to be in accordance with Yemenite tradition which specifies sixty-seven lines, as opposed to most other common versions which do have seventy lines.]

Ha'azinu Song in the Aleppo Codex with 67 lines (Note the vocalisations)

Thus it appears quite probable that Rambam did indeed refer to the Aleppo Codex as is generally believed.

(An interesting question for further study would be why the later versions of Mishneh Torah ‘changed’ the number from sixty-seven to seventy?)


Some Rishonim, however, disagree with Rambam’s endorsement of the Aleppo Codex and did not ascribe any particular or exclusive authority to this Codex. They held that any other acceptable versions that were widely used and relied upon over time, were just as authoritative.[14]

Practically, according to halacha, we may read from any Torah based on an acceptable tradition and recite the blessings when called up to read from them.[15] The reason is because we no longer have the earlier (and therefore more authoritative) Codex of Ezra to refer back to.

Even Rambam’s son, Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam, agreed with this ruling. In fact, amazingly, according to Rambam himself, one may even recite a blessing on being called up to a Sefer Torah that is already designated as invalid.

(This ruling can be found in Rambam’s responsum to the rabbis of Narvona. Some say, however, that this was a forgery written by the inhabitants of Narvona themselves.)[16]


It seems as though systems of vocalisation (the markings under, above and in the middle of the Hebrew letters) were only formulated around the eighth century. 

There were three primary schools of vocalisation; One in Babylonia, and another in southern Israel[17] – both these schools placed the markings above the letters. This method of vocalisation, however, was no longer in popular usage after the eleventh century.

The third school was in Tiberius which gave rise to the common system of vocalisation that we use today.

Ibn Ezra writes that; ‘The sages of Tiberias are the most accurate of all. From them came all our mesoras (traditions) and vocalisation.’[18]


The scribes were called sofrim or ‘counters’ because they counted every letter, word and sentence. Our Torah scrolls of today have 304 805 letters.[19] 

However, there are other traditions, such as Ben Asher, who put the number at 400 945.

Another tradition recorded in Midrash Talpiot, puts the number is 310 674. 

According to a further tradition, the number is 600 000 corresponding to the souls that left Egypt.[20]

According to Ashkenazi and Sefardi rites, the word ‘vayehi’ is used in one location as opposed to the Yemenite rite, where the word reads ‘vayiheyu’.[21] 

Also in another place, the word ‘dakah’ is spelt with a ‘hey’, whereas in Yemenite traditions it is spelt with an ‘alef’.[22] Interestingly, the Yemenite scrolls are considered most accurate and are closer to the Aleppo Codex which Rambam referred to.[23]


The common Hebrew script that we use today is known as Ashurit. But there was another script which was used in ancient Israel, known as ‘Old Hebrew’. There are different views regarding exactly which scripts were used for which texts, and when exactly they were used
Some say that although ‘Old Hebrew’ script was used in ancient times, the original Torah scrolls, as well as the Ten Commandments, were given in Ashurit. This would mean that our scrolls today resemble the original scrolls.

Others say that Ashurit script was forgotten during the Babylonian exile and that ‘Old Hebrew’ was used until Ezra restored the Ashurit script.

A third view is that the original Torah, as well as the Ten Commandments, were given in ‘Old Hebrew’ and that Ezra was the first to introduce the Ashurit script.

A forth view is that the old script was used for study purposes, but the script for Torah scrolls that were to be read from in public was written in Ashurit.[24]


A Torah scroll with one letter missing or extra is invalid. The scribe has to copy from an existing text and not from memory. He has to annunciate the word before writing it. If a mistake is found in a scroll, one has a period of thirty days grace before the mistake is either corrected or the scroll placed in a geniza, a repository for unused holy books. If more than three mistakes are found in a Torah scroll, it is not sufficient to just correct those three errors, but the entire scroll would have to be thoroughly examined.[25]

[1]These  discrepancies are slight in relation to the Chumash, but are more pronounced in relation to the rest of Tanach. Note: According to some accounts these three scrolls were found by Ezra himself and he wrote his Torah based on the majority of the three. (Torah Sheleima vol. 19 p. 254 n.19)
[2] See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought 1979, p. 121 – 139.

[3] Laws of Sefer Torah, ch. 8. Hal. 4
[4] It is generally accepted that Ben Asher formulated the accepted vocalisation as well pronunciations and other technicalities, and is believed to have authored Dikdukei HaTaamim (Details of Cantillation marks).
[5] The Karaites were Jewish literalists who disregarded the Oral Tradition.  The fact that this Codex was entrusted to them as opposed to mainstream Rabbinic Jews, shows just how influential they were at that time. See here.
[6] The Jews referred to Aleppo as Aram Tsova.
[7] Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, a keen historian, was Israel’s second and longest serving president.
[8] A research facility established by President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, with a special interest in Jews from Sefardic and Arab backgrounds.
[9] See The Tragedy of the Aleppo Codex, by Yuval Elbashan (Haaretz Oct 05, 2012).
[10] See The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, by Matt Friedman. Algonquin Books.

[11] Laboratory tests show no signs of burning.
[12] See The Aleppo Codex by Machon Ben-Zvi, or Ben-Zvi Institute, to view the actual Codex.
[13] Devarim 32
[14] See Teshuvot Rashba 232 (on Ramban), and see Meiri to Kiddushin 30a
[15] See Peninei Halacha, ibid. P 78
[16] See Peninei Halacha ibid. P. 78, footnote 2.
[17] In the school of southern Israel, surviving manuscripts show the segol and tzere, the kametz and patach, are all used interchangeably, suggesting a pronunciation similar to modern Israeli Hebrew.
[18] From his work, Tsahot.
[19] See Rabbi Reuven Margolies, HaMikra VeHamesorah 12, p.41
[20] See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought 1979, p. 135
It should be pointed out that there are different systems of counting Hebrew letters because sometimes two letters can together form on a single letter. The large number of 600 000 is most likely allegoric.
[21] Gen 9, 29 See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, Hilchot Sefer Torah, p. 76
[22] Devarim 23,2
[23] See Peninei Halacha, ibid. P. 77
[24] Ibid. P. 139
[25] See Peninei Halacha, Likuttin 1, Hilchot Sefer Torah, p.75
[26] See Writing the Torah by R. Aryeh Kaplan: "It is thus written, "Chilkiah the Kohen-priest found the book of God's Torah, [written] in Moses' hand" (2 Chronicles 34:14). King Yoshia used this as an occasion to rededicate the people to the observance of the Torah. When Jerusalem was in danger of invasion, King Yoshia hid the Ark containing the original Torah and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. It was concealed in a catacomb that had been prepared by King Solomon when he had first built the Temple. It is still there today."    Note that the dates for Yoshia are alternately given as c. 640–609 bce.

UPDATE: (1 Jan 2017)


I was always bothered why the Master Copy of Ben Asher was placed in the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 11th Century. I was astounded to discover that there is much debate over whether or not Ben Asher may, in fact, have been a Karaite himself.

It appears as if, from Cairo Geniza fragments, the ben Asher family may have been Karaites for a number of generations. This may have been why they were so preoccupied with the preservation of accurate texts.

Rav Saadia Gaon, known for his fierce debates with the Karaites, referred rather critically to a 'Ben Asher', but no one connected him to the famed Ben Asher of the later to be known Aleppo Codex - until the relatively recently discoveries in the Cairo Geniza.

On the other hand, Rambam (who also debated - but more amicably - with the Karaites) was known to have had quite good relations with the Karaite community, and we know that he endorsed Ben Asher's Torah.

A quote from Aharon ben Asher's Sefer Dikdukei haTe'amim reads: "The prophets...complete the Torah, are as the Torah, and we decide Law from them as we do from the Torah."

This sentence may previously have been overlooked as an innocuous statement, but with apparent evidence pointing in another direction, it may support the notion that he may have been a Karaite, as they certainly do 'decide law from the Torah'.

This is not an entirely compelling argument as the Rabbinites also base their Law on the Torah, although with more latitude. But it does make for a fascinating study to think that our (third) Master Copy, after Moshe and Ezra, came from Aharon ben Asher who may have been a Karaite!


Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex, by Hayim Tawil, Bernard Schneider.


See: Was Rashi's Torah Scroll Flawed? by Rabbi Dr Shnayer Leiman.

Monday 22 February 2016


Rav Kook talking to Chaim Bialik

Within the space of about a week, I came upon two extraordinary pieces of writing by two very different but influential thinkers, Rav Kook and Rambam. They both write about the surprising exalted status of segments of society that we usually tend to look down upon. And they explore the limits and fallibility of scholarship.


Although very approachable and affable, Rav Kook has been described as almost living in an other-worldly realm. While most of us ‘ascend’ for prayer, he apparently had difficulty in ‘descending’ to pray in what he called ‘cages’ of words. 

His writings seemed to course directly from his soul. It is said that he didn’t actively sit down to write like most other scholars, instead the words flowed ‘not because he had the strength to speak but because he didn’t have the strength to keep quiet.’ And once he started writing he didn’t stop, often not even realizing that he had come to the end of the paper, and continued writing onto the table.

Also, he chose to write with pencil instead of ink which would have required numerous stops for refilling thus interrupting his thoughts. And remarkably, on inspection of his manuscripts, he never crossed out words or sentences, seemingly expressing himself appropriately the first time.

Rambam, on the other hand, was forced to flee from Spain and upon arrival in Morocco found the Almohad revolution had broken out there as well, so the family again fled to the Atlas Mountains where they lived in a cave for about nine years. It was during this uncomfortable time in the cave that he began writing his commentary to the Mishna. 

When he eventually arrived in Cairo, he became the physician to the Sultan, and writes in his letters how long and hard he worked during the day, meeting with people from all over the world and tending to the frail. Somehow he managed to make time to write so many works that were to become cornerstones of Judaism as we know it today. By looking at his manuscripts we see that he often did cross out words and sentences and then, as the different colors of ink attest, he seemed to have gone back to them some time later.

RAV KOOK (1865-1935):

Rav Kook said some amazing things in his lifetime. Many of these treasures are scattered and hidden amongst his various writings. Here is one such example of a dramatic piece of writing. (My loose translation follows):

“Ordinary people who are not scholars have many advantages over the learned. This is because their untainted (natural lit.) minds and normative sense of morality (and ethics) have not yet become corrupted (blurred lit.[tishteish]) by mistakes [shegiot]), which arise from study. 

-But this (corruption) does indeed occur (within the scholars themselves) as a result of the weakening of their (intrinsic and natural intellectual and moral) faculties, and the anger [hitkatzfut] that builds up in them as a result of the pressure (burden lit.) of learning.”

If that’s not enough, Rav Kook continues:

“And scholars need to constantly adapt [sigel] (and adopt) as much as they are able to, the natural traits (talents lit.) of ordinary unlearned people (amei ha’aretz). This (suggestion) would apply to (the scholars adopting) both (the ordinary people’s) general attitude towards life, as well as their natural affinity to (basic) morality (and decency). 

This way, (by learning basic morality and approach from those ‘less’ than them), the (scholars) minds will be opened and they will truly develop (and become elevated lit.).”

But Rav Kook is not yet finished.

He adds; “The same would apply to the requirement of tzadikim (righteous) to learn even from the rashaim (wicked). This is because we find that even within certain rashaim, the small amount of good still left in them, is built upon a profound natural sense of decency and (even) purity. And because of this, the tzadikim need to learn from the (good still evident within) rashaim.” [1]

This has got to be one of the most honest, provocative, profound and powerful short segments of modern Torah literature.

Rav Kook praises the natural and instinctive ability of non-religious people to maintain basic decency and normative and natural attitudes and thinking. He laments the fact that, in his view, this sometimes gets lost when people turn to religion and begin studying religious texts. And he urges people who are already better religiously versed, to actively learn from those they may ordinarily tend to look down upon. They need to do so, because although they may not realize it, their own environments may be somewhat ethically harsh and intellectually (although not textually) stark.
RAMBAM (1135-1204):

As an unexpected result of researching the previous article, I happened upon (yet another) dizzying piece of Rambam.  One wonders whether Rav Kook the mystic, did not find some inspiration in something Maimonides the rationalist, wrote some eight hundred years earlier. (My loose translation and paraphrase follows):

“One of the reasons why people are blind to the (sometimes obvious) truth is because they cling to things they were habitually taught when they were young. (Rambam seems to refer to what we today might call ‘brainwashing’.) These are the theological opinions to which we have become accustomed to from our youth. We defend these views so much and are so comfortable with them that we shun all other perspectives.

This stems from our long familiarity with the simple and literal meaning of verses of the Torah which we were taught as children. The way we were taught as youngsters, sometimes destroys our ability to understand Torah in a more sophisticated manner.

(As we grew older and started studying more technicalities) it was like our eyes had become accustomed to look at very fine things from too close - or at very far things that we couldn’t focus upon either - so that when we tried to look at other things with our ordinary vision, which should have been easily within our range, they became blurred.

If a person studies too much (text without context) he becomes confused. And as a result, (ironically) he will no longer be capable of understanding even ordinary things anymore.”[2]


The similarities between this Rambam and Rav Kook are all the more uncanny when we see, not only a reference to the mind becoming blurred, but also a reference to the scholar becoming somewhat confused .There is also a reference to; “Your eyes will become too weak to perceive what you were able to see before you excelled at your studies”  - which ties in with the notion of the scholar no longer being able to understand the basic things that were so obvious before.

There is a further reference to the requirement of the scholar to ‘admit the doubt’, which brings one to a state of ‘pure humanity’[3]. This corresponds to Rav Kook’s reminder that scholars are not infallible, and sometimes need to learn - from ordinary people - the basic things which they may have overlooked. If the scholar loses his grounding with ordinary people, he will ‘deceive himself’[4]  and create ‘illusions’[5] which may eventually lead to ‘despicable behavioural patterns’.[6]

An overemphasis on learning can sometimes make the scholar intellectually and morally poorer, not richer, and at that point the ordinary person overtakes him.


Rav Kook did (very politely) record his view of Rambam’s rationalism as expressed in Moreh Nevuchim, as follows; “There are some people who are influenced by certain ideas and then there are others who find different ideas that bring them closer to the sublime and holy.”[7]

Speaking perhaps a little more to the point, he writes elsewhere that; “I cannot satisfy my soul with the love that comes from reason.”[8]

On the other hand, Rambam finds spirituality within his rationalism, which he regards as not just an approach to Torah thinking, but the very essence of it.

Although Rambam and Rav Kook are two very different people living in different eras and with very distinct philosophical approaches, the amazing thing that emanates from our two texts is that, in this case, they both express a very similar sentiment[9]:

They believe that when it comes to learning simple universal truths, ethics and attitudes, we usually tend to look for them in all the wrong places.

Yet these truths are so primal, universal and inherent that they cannot be found in books or teachers, but are instead sourced deep within the very fabric of unencumbered ordinary human beings.

[1] Shmona Kevatzim 1. 463.  See also 1. 75
[2] Moreh Nevuchim, vol.1, end of ch. 31 and beginning of ch. 32
Rambam goes on to explain that overindulgence in learning is similar to overindulgence in eating food that is too sweet; ‘Just as too much honey irritates the stomach and makes one sick.’ And then quotes from Mishlei (15,27); ‘Do not make yourself overwise. Why should you destroy yourself?’
[3] ‘shleimot ha’enoshi’
[4] ‘toneh nafshecha’
[5] ‘dmiyonim’
[6] ‘hamidot hamegunot’
[7] See Maamarei HaReiyah 14-15
[8] See Igrot HaReiyah 2, 12
[9] See a similar view as expressed by the Kotzker Rebbe here.
One also hears echoes of The Baal Shem Tov’s philosophy where he too sees fallibility in scholarship and therefore places more emphasis on ordinary people.

Of course, many ordinary people are immoral and do lack intellectuality. Nevertheless, there is still a significant groundswell of others who although not necessarily observant, do exhibit the basic values of common decency, common sense and positive attitude. This is the segment of ordinary society they are obviously referring to in our two texts.

To be accurate; Although both Rambam and Rav Kook do strongly point out the inherent moral and intellectual risks associated with an overemphasis on scholarship, and do show that ordinary people often have advantages over scholars – Rav Kook calls for scholars to actively learn from non-scholars while Rambam focuses rather on the fallibility of viewing scholarship as an end in itself without overstating the need to actively learn from non-scholars, although he certainly does imply it.

Interestingly, Rav Kook talks about the irony of 'mistakes' occurring as a result of the overemphasis of scholarship, while Rambam appears to be more forthright, referring to active 'deceit'!

One wonders what Rav Kook's take would be on the popular kiruv or outreach movements of today. They do wonderful work although their focus is very much on what they can teach the less knowledgeable, without any space for learning anything from them. Imagine opening the dialogue and allowing for more of a two-way transfer of things both sides could learn from each other.


The following is extracted from the writings of R. David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo:

"I believe that most intelligent, educated Jews who 'reside' in the world as we know it, as opposed to those who view reality through a medieval prism, discount such things, just as they discount tales about demons and evil spirits. 

The Rambam, very much ahead of his time, explicitly rejected many notions that are mentioned in the Talmud and were once widely believed by the masses, and even by many scholars, such as demons and astrology. 

It is difficult to convey to the modern reader how radical Rambam's positions were at that time when all civilizations grave credence to such claims. 

Nor do I believe in spontaneous generation, even though at least some members of Hazal did. How could I when the reality is clearly visible under a microscope? 

I know that many Orthodox Jews are reluctant to express their thoughts on these matters for fear of being labelled unorthodox. This is a great pity, a tragedy in fact: it misleads many to adopt the view that to be an Orthodox Jew one has to be primitive and unschooled, or alternately exist in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. One can only guess at the number of Jews who have turned their backs on Tora Judaism for this and related reasons. 

Modern understandings and scientific advancement are not enemies of Tora, and we should embrace all knowledge based on fact. 90 years ago Rav Kook z'l pointed out that the increase in human understanding should encourage us to expand our minds, which will in turn lead us to a more profound understanding of Tora and knowledge of HASHEM. 

Rav Kook points out further that old and obsolete theological understandings must be relinquished in order to make way for the newer, deeper understandings that our present state of knowledge demands. He likens it to the seed planted in the earth which must first begin to rot before it sends forth the new shoot of life."

See: Truth, Authenticity, Tradition and Reason: Who Wrote the Zohar? Written by Rav Bar-Hayim Sunday, 26 February 2012.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

071) Mysterious 'Secret Document' Attesting That Rambam Was A Mystic:

Was Maimonides A Secret Mystic?

Rabbi Moses Maimonides or Rambam (1135-1204) is known as one of the great fathers of Jewish law and rationalism. Yet scholars throughout the ages have always had an interesting relationship with his works. Some considered him to be a potential messiah, while others burned or scoffed at his books. For the overwhelming majority, though, his halachik or legal writings are acknowledged as universally authoritative. It is mainly his writings on philosophy and theology that created some controversy.

Love him or not, for the most part he is regarded as a rationalist and is never really considered to have been a mystic.


In Moreh Nevuchim, Rambam writes perhaps his most radical and revolutionary thesis that the Torah spoke of sacrifices and incense only as a concession to a generation that had just come out of an idolatrous and sacrificial culture. But, he maintains, it was never intended to be a core Jewish practice for future generations.  
He speaks of the necessity to be weaned off those practices and move on to a more sophisticated and rational system of theology. Amazingly he says that there is no spirituality in sacrifices nor inherit holiness in the Temple service and that G-d has no desire for such practices. (This is a Rambam that one actually needs to read in order to believe.)[1]

He also writes that; “The Law concerning the fruit of a tree in its fourth year has some relation to idolatrous customs.”[2]

In another place he says that angels cannot appear in human form. This puts paid to the numerous references to angels appearing as humans as are recorded in the Torah (such as Abraham being visited by angels). 
Rather, according to Rambam, these encounters took place in a dreamlike state, and should not be understood as having transpired in reality. Rambam wrote; “Do not imagine that an angel is seen or his word heard...”[3]

A similar example of his acute rationalism can be seen in his relationship with Ibn Ezra (1089-1167). Most Rishonim, as the rabbis of that era were known, did not actually ever meet each other.[4] One exception was Ibn Ezra, who at the age of fifty decided to travel (and became known as the ‘wandering rabbi’). He met the Rambam in Cairo, and they shared some of their thoughts.

Ibn Ezra wrote; “The rational approach to Torah study is fundamental. The Torah was meant only for those who know how to think for themselves. The ‘angels’ are not mediating beings but rather a reference to the mind, which must mediate between man and G-d.”[5]

So impressed was Rambam with some of the views expressed by Ibn Ezra, that in a letter to his (Rambam’s) son, he advised he study Torah only with the commentary of Ibn Ezra.

He further writes that there is nothing intrinsically holy about a Sefer Torah, teffilin or mezuzah. Their holiness lies only in their consecration towards a higher educational purpose.

Rambam never once mentioned the concept of sefirot or spheres which is so central to mystical thinking. He was so overtly rationalist that the great kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542- 1620) was prompted to write that in his view, Rambam’s soul must have come from the ‘left side’ as there is nothing mystical to be found any of his teachings. Rabbi Vital said of himself that he was a gilgul or transmigration of the soul of Rabbi Vidal of Toulouse (about two hundred years earlier) who authored Magid Mishne, a prime commentary on Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. He believed he was now ‘rectifying’ his 'complicity' in Rambam's previous rationalism.

In one of his post Guide letters, Rambam responded to a question about astrology. He responded that; ‘man should only believe what he can grasp with his intellectual faculties, or perceive by his senses, or what he can accept from a trustworthy authority. Beyond that nothing should be believed.’[7] 

He ridicules the idea that the fate of man is dependent upon stars, as this would make us simple slaves to destiny and rob us of any sense of purpose.
He regards the study of religious philosophy as the ‘highest degree of Divine worship, surpassing even the study of Law and the practice of its precepts.’[8]

Rambam upset so many people with his unabashed rationalism that Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776)[9] believes that parts of his writings were forged. He even doubts whether any portion of it was the work of the same ‘Rambam, who authored the Mishneh Torah (the esteemed halachik work), who was not capable of writing such heretic doctrines.’[10]


In the face of all the Rambam’s radical rationalism, we come across some astounding assertions attesting to a very mystical side of the selfsame man.


The Brisker Rav apparently said that every one line in the Guide is drawn from one hundred lines of Zohar.[11]


The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that while the writings may appear to be nigleh (revealed Torah), they are in fact nistar (esoteric) in nature.[12]
Many Chassidic rebbes seemed quite comfortable with the writing of Rambam although they were not comfortable quoting him directly, using the phrase ‘books of earlier scholars’ as a covert reference instead.[13]

ZANS (1791-1876):

The great Chassidic Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Zans is said to have studied the guide at the holiest time of the year, Kol Nidrei night, after the evening prayers.

RUZHYN (1797-1850):

Another Chassidic Rabbi, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhyn (1797-1850) could never understand why people spoke badly of Rambam. He defended Rambam’s assertion that Aristotle knew more about mundane matters than the prophet Ezekiel, by explaining that Ezekiel was so absorbed with the ‘king’, while Aristotle was enamoured by the ‘palace’.

SADEGORA (1819-1883):

According to the Sadegora Rebbe, Reb Avraham Yaakov, Rambam could have been the messiah was it not for the fact that the world was not yet ready for him at that time.

KOTZK (1787-1859):

Even the Kotzker Rebbe, who was advised by his teacher not to read the Rambam’s theology although he could read the rest of his writings – apparently went against the instruction and did read those very theological sections. [14]


The Rogatchover had a special love for Rambam in general and the Moreh Nevuchim in particular. He had a copy of the work in manuscript form, from which he even sourced halachik support for some of his rulings.


The fact is, though, that the issue of Rambam’s association with mysticism is a fascinating if not cloudy mystery.

One the one hand, as we have seen, many of the ideas he espoused were in clear and radical opposition to kabbalah.

On the other hand (although he himself makes no direct references to kabalah) he writes that he was exposed to all the writing of the post Talmudic Geonim who did make numerous references to kabbalah.[15] In fact some of his wording often even appears to have been taken directly from the Zohar itself.[16]

This is where things start getting intriguing:

There has always existed a spiritual lobby group, purporting that in his later years, he ‘retracted’ some of his former radical rationalist writings and became a mystic.

MEIR IBN GABBAI (1480-1540):

Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbai was the author of Avodat HaKodesh, which was an extremely popular work that enjoyed five editions in the late 1500’s alone, and was distributed all across the Jewish world. The book contained a counter to Rambam’s rationalism and helped spur the kabbalist movement.[17]  He was one of the first writers to systematically and formally deal with kabbalistic concepts.

Remarkably he maintains that he saw with his own eyes a report in the name of Rambam where he acknowledges that a certain man came down to Egypt in order to teach him kabbalah.

Ibn Gabbai then writes that as a result of that encounter; “...once he (Rambam) found the pearl he cast away the stones.”[18]  Thus, in this influential book, is to be found one of the first allusions to a claim that Rambam recanted his earlier rationalism in favour of mysticism.[19]


Abulafia, the great kabbalist who founded the school of ‘Profetic Kabbalah’, spent years studying and teaching the Guide and compiled a mystical commentary to it entitled Sodot HaMoreh, or Secrets of the Guide.[20] The Guide was considered such a mystical work that even the number of its 177 chapters was said to intentionally corresponded to the numerical value of Gan Eden, or Paradise.[21] [22]


Abravanel makes a similar claim and writes; “I also have heard that Rambam said of himself; ‘ my later years a certain man influenced me. If I was not so old, and had my works not been so widely distributed, I would have retracted them.’”[23]


In some of Rabbi Alashkar’s responsa literature, an interesting development takes place. He strenuously defends Rambam against attacks by the kabbalist Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov, who classified some of the views put forth in the Guide as heretical[24]

Alashkar, in the process of defending Rambam, also maintains that he did become a kabalist when he got older. This, Alashkar writes, is recorded in a secret document allegedly written by Rambam himself

In that secret document, Alashkar says Rambam wrote; “For most of my life I was perplexed...about existing things and wanted to understand their real meaning by using my intellect. But now I realize that I was wrong and that the kabbalists are able to explain them very well.”[25]

This alleged secret document is also said to have been in the possession of the kabbalist Yosef Ergas (1685-1730), author of Shomer Emunim.


Did this alleged document actually exist?
Was it authentic and, did it record the truth?
Could it have been a forgery?
Why was it ‘secret’?
What happened to that document?

These are questions we will probably never know the answers to. 

Either way, one amazing fact remains: Within the vast reaches of Torah theology one man’s ‘heresy’ is another’s ‘ecstasy’. 

It’s nice to know that every Jew can find a space for the mind and heart to call home.

[1] See Guide vol. 3, ch. 32
[2] See Guide vol. 3, ch. 38
[3] See Guide vol. 2, ch. 42
[4] The Rif, for example, living in North Africa and Spain, never met Rashi, who lived in France at the same time.
[5] See Ibn Ezra’s Introduction to the Chumash.
[6] See Guide, vol. 2, ch. 40
[7] See Guide, by M. Friedlander 1904, xxv

He goes on to say; ‘He himself had studied astrology, and was convinced it was no science at all. If some dicta be found in the Talmud which appear to represent astrology as a true source of knowledge, these may either be referred to the rejected opinion of a small minority, or may have an allegorical meaning, but they are by no means forcible enough to set aside principle based on logical proof.’

[8] Ibid. Xxxvi

[9] Also known as Yabetz (Yaakov ben Tzvi). A German Talmudist who fiercely challenged false messiah, Shabatai Tzvi.
[10] See Mitpachat Sefarim, Lemberg 1870, p. 56
[11] The Vina Gaon, in his Introduction to Avot, disparages Rambam and his denial of the reality of various supernatural phenomena. In his commentary on Shulchan Aruch he writes; ‘ All those who came after Rambam disagreed with him...but he was drawn after the accursed philosophy...Philosophy caused him to interpret everything in the Gemara (on this topic) mockingly and to uproot it from its plain meaning.’ (The authenticity of this passage was for some time disputed, but has since been confirmed by a manuscript.) –See The Vilna Gaon, by Rabbi Dovid Shulmam, p.159.
Then on p. 160 it is recorded that when someone complained to the Vilna Gaon that another was giving a lesson in Moreh Nevuchim, he said; ‘Don’t you dare speak against the honor of the Ramabam and his writings. Would that I might merit to enter his portion of Paradise!’
[12] See Likkutei Sichot vol. 3 761  “ there are many topics in Guide for the Perplexed which have a basis in Zohar and Kabbalah.”
[13] See Yakov Dienstag who wrote of the connection between chassidic leaders and Rambam.

Although many Chassidim endorsed the Guide, one notable and vehement exception is Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who writes; ‘how can anyone imagine giving such worthless reasons for the sacrifices and incense?’ (Shivchei HaRan)
Another quotation; ‘ The Rebbe (Nachman) spoke many times about philosophical works (particularly the Moreh Nevuchim) and strictly forbade us to study or even look at them...Such works only confuse the mind and implant unsound beliefs which are not in accordance with the wisdom of the Torah. The authors of these works do not believe in the forces of evil, and this goes contrary to the teaching of the rabbis, especially the Zohar...all of which were founded on ruach hakodesh and have the power to awaken people and inspire them...The Rebbe repeated this warning countless times.’ (Tzadik #407)
‘One Rosh Hashana the Rebbe spoke about the prohibition against studying Torah commentaries taking a philosophical approach (such as the works of Ibn Ezra...which are known to contain statements contrary to the Torah to the point that one should rend his garments on hearing a single word of them.)’ (# ibid. 409)

‘ The Rebbe also said one can tell from a person’s face if he has studied the Guide for the Perplexed...because they are bound to lose their image of G-d...Everyone can see that most of the people who study these works today become total atheists, and we have to suspect them for transgressing the entire Torah.’ (ibid. #408)

Yet strangely, in lesson #412, we read; ‘As for the fact that the Rebbe himself studied philosophical works from time to time, this is the concept of the journey of the children of Israel through the wilderness...the place of evil trample down the forces of evil. For us, however, it is strictly prohibited to look into these works...the very great Tzadik is obligated to go into such works in order to elevate the souls which have fallen there.’

[15] See Introduction to Mishneh Torah. These would include Rav Hai Gaon and Rav Sherira Gaon.
[16] See HaRambam VeHaZohar, by Rabbi Reuvain Margolios.
[17] Ironically, according to Moshe Idel, Rambam’s views served as a ‘negative catalyser’ for kabbalistic conceptions. See Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon, by James A. Diamond.
[18] Avodat HaKodesh, vol. 3, ch. 13
[19] See Attitudes of the Kabbalists and Hasidim towards Maimonides, by Louis Jacobs and based on a lecture delivered in 1985. I have taken much material from that source. Although I may disagree with some of his philosophies, I have to admire him for his tremendous scholarship and research.
[20] Abulafia seems to draw from the Rambam’s concept of prophesy and angels as being experiences of the mind, and integrated them into his contemplation and concentration exercises. Abulafia, interestingly didn’t go along with the common kabbalistic emphasis on sefirot, describing them as worse than the Christian concept of the trinity.
[21] See Guide, by M. Friedlander 1904, xxxiii
[22] Abulafia’s mystical commentary is significant because it lend more weight to the idea that Rambam always was a mystic, rather than that he became a mystic in his latter years.
[23] Nachalat Avot p. 209
[24] In another great irony, Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov’s grandson, who also went by the name Shem Tov, went against his grandfather and defended the rationalism of Rambam and his writing became one of the main accepted commentaries to the Guide For The Perplexed.

As an aside, another commentary to the Guide that appears adjacent to the commentary of Shem Tov, is the Efodi. His story is interesting; His real name was Yitzchak ben Moshe, but went by the Christian name of Profiat Duran, which he adopted to escape persecution in 1391. When he later returned to Judaism and wrote his commentary, he called it Efodi, an acronym for Amar Profiat Duran.

All in all, I counted almost forty different commentaries on the Guide or Moreh Nevuchim, which gives some idea as to the impact (positive and negative) it had made. Rambam said he wrote this book primarily for his student Yosef ben Yehudah Ibn Aknin and those like him; ‘...whose studies have brought them into collision with religion.’
[25] Responsa 117, p. 313