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 


  1. This is very interesting. You probably need a logical grounding to then develop into a never ending mystical experience... this is amazing lifelong learning in essence... it also shows how views can and do change over time and that nothing is ever really set in stone or is as it seems...

  2. Yoga recognizes various pathways to the experience of God. "Jnana Yoga" is the path of "intellectual discrimination." In it, one intellectually discriminates between the "changing" and "Unchanging;" the unreal and the "Real," etc. The most well-known branch of this is the Indian philosophy, "Vedanta." The Rambam was practicing Jnana Yoga; he might be termed a "vedantin." Another pathway is "Bhakti Yoga" -- the path of devotion. Rebbe Nachman was doing this. He might be thought of as a "bhakti yogi." Yoga recognizes varying, even contradictory pathways to the experience of God.


  3. R Shaul Brach from Kashau in avos al bonim quotes from the divrei chaim that he said that the rambam's pen knew more than the rambam himself. Meaning the rambam was mechaven to zohars with ruach hakodesh even though he never had one.

  4. ZK please post your very interesting comment again. I deleted you by mistake.