Sunday 26 November 2017


Cairo Geniza fragment with the handwriting of Avraham ben haRambam.


Rabeinu Avraham ben haRambam (1186-1237) was still a teenager when his father passed away.
At the tender age of eighteen, he succeeded his father as Naggid or head of the Egyptian Jewish community – which effectively amounted to him being the leader of most of the Jews under Muslim rule at that time. 

His teachings were studied and his influence was felt not just in Egypt, but from Southern France to Yemen including Babylonia and North Africa.

He also took over as court physician[1] to the Sultan.[2]

During his tenure, he managed to bring a large section of Karaite Jews back to the community of the mainstream Rabbinites. See KOTZK BLOG 63.

He vigorously defended his father’s dignity whenever he came under attack. In 1235, after Rambam’s manuscripts were burned by the rabbis of Montpellier, southern France, he started to compose his Milchamot Hashem in defence of his father. Were it not for this work, it is believed that Rambam’s writings would never have achieved universal acclaim. 

Rabeinu Avraham also wrote medical works, halachic responsa[3], Talmudic commentaries, explanations to his father’s Mishneh Torah, as well as his lengthy theological work haMaspik eOvdei  HaShem[4], or Guide to Serving G-d.


According to Professor Mark Verman who studied under R. Isadore Twersky, Jewish mysticism developed over various and distinct periods of great intensity, followed by intervals of hibernation. 

From about the 700’s to the 1200’s Jewish mysticism experienced ‘only sporadic activity’ which then suddenly exploded and flourished for about one hundred years - around  the time of Rabeinu Avraham -  and this period proved to be ‘the most productive and creative epoch in the entire history of Jewish mysticism.’[5]

Interestingly, the same phenomenon was occurring almost concurrently within the Muslim world as well. Between the 700’s and the late 1000’s, Islamic mysticism known as Sufism, was driven underground by Orthodox Islam until it was rehabilitated by al-Ghazali (1058-1111). It was at this time that Islamic mysticism began to spread throughout Egypt.[6]


Rabeinu Avraham’s primary work of 2500 pages, written in Judeo-Arabic under the title Kitab Kifayah al-Abidin[7], is about three times as long as his father’s famous Guide for the Perplexed.
It is this work that is said to contain evidence of his apparent Sufi connections.

Like Bachya Ibn Pakuda had done in Spain just over a century before (see KOTZK BLOG 151), Rabeinu Avraham wanted to infuse what he considered exoteric[8] and complacent Egyptian Jewry with elements of esoteric[9] Sufi mysticism. He became known as Avraham haChassid (a term reserved for pietists).

A LOST FORM OF JEWISH MYSTICISM?                                                                                                  
Rabeinu Avraham wrote in no uncertain terms that:

Thou art aware of the ways of the ancient saints of Israel, which are not or but little practised among our contemporaries, that have now become the practice of the Sufis of Islam, on account of the iniquities of Israel.[10]

According to him, the Sufis of his day somehow continued to maintain the traditions of the Prophets of the Torah.  

He continued:

Do not regard as unseemly our comparison of that to the behaviour of the Sufis, for the latter imitate the prophets (of Israel) and walk in their footsteps...”

He clearly believed that Sufism represented a lost form of Jewish mysticism. 

He married the daughter of the leader of the Jewish-Sufi movement which was prevalent in Egypt at that time, and for more than a century after his death, the followers of this school of Jewish-Sufi thought were active throughout Egypt. 

Rabeinu Avraham and his followers were known as Chassidim (not to be confused with modern Chassidim) and they incorporated into their Judaism some aspects of Sufi mysticism, which included self-discipline and asceticism.

He also introduced the washing of the hands and feet before entering a synagogue, as well as the notion of praying in orderly rows.

According to Professor Paul Fenton of the Sorbonne; “...after having discussed Sufi attire, he mentions that he himself wore these garments[11].

The Sufis practised a type of meditation where they would seclude themselves from the world, claiming it was an ancient practice of the Prophets of Old.[12] The seclusion often took place in the dark of night and this was also something which Rabeinu Avraham encouraged people to do. He cited the verse in Isaiah: “Who among you fears G-d...(he) who walks in the dark and has no light.”[13]

Rabeinu Avraham extolled the virtues of spending time alone. He believed it was worthy to plough a field even if just for the opportunity to be on vast tracts of land by oneself. He brought many examples from the greats of Jewish history like Saul, Elisha, Abba Chilkia, who did just that. He also cites R. Chanania who spent time in a different type of solitude whilst in ‘the upper story of his house’ and the sages of Israel would come and receive his blessing.[14]

He also believed that it was worthy to exert oneself physically in order to make a livelihood. In keeping with the Sufi teachings, Rabeinu Avraham encouraged his followers to maintain a strong sense of brotherhood and also an enduring connection to a spiritual leader or guide[15].

The interesting thing is that all we know about Rabeinu Avraham’s mystical tendencies were always clearly in the open with no attempt to hide or disguises his influences. This can be seen in the availability of so much open source material from both Muslim and Jewish writings.


It is greatly ironic that Rambam, the father of Jewish rationalism had a son who was beginning to introduce (or reintroduce) elements of mysticism into Judaism.  Perhaps the fact that Rambam died when his son was only nineteen years old, had something to do with this.

We do know that Rambam acknowledged the almost ‘biblical-like’ nature of his son when he wrote: “G-d has bestowed upon my son Avraham, grace and blessings similar to those He gave to him whose name he bears (i.e. Avraham Avinu)... With help from G-d, he will certainly gain renown amongst the great. [16]

They are similar, however, in the sense that Rambam, particularly in his philosophical works, taught a type of Judaism for the intellectual elite as opposed to the ‘ignorant masses’. In a similar fashion, Rabeinu Avraham taught a type Judaism for the spiritually elite, who were more concerned with individual salvation over the general functioning of the socio-religious group.[17]


The Maimonidean family interest in mysticism continued for four generations after the death of Rabeinu Avraham. His descendants all became primary leaders of the Jewish community. His lineage passed on to his son, David (d.1300), then to Avraham II (d. 1313), then to Yehoshua (d. 1355) and finally to David ben Yehoshua (d. 1415).

At around the beginning of the 1400’s, David ben Yehoshua left Cairo for Aleppo in Syria, taking with him the famed Aleppo Codex (see KOTZK BLOG 73) as well as the most comprehensive collection of Sufi works and amassed one of the largest libraries in the western Mediterranean at that time.

During this period, Rabeinu David, or David haNagid[18] as he was also known, inspired R. Yosef Bonfils to write his commentary to Ibn Ezra which became known as Zafnat Paneach (Revealer of Secrets). He also commissioned a Muslim commentary to his ancestor the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.[19]

A letter found in the Cairo Geniza (see KOTZK BLOG 91) written by David haNagid tells of Jews attending Sufi zhikr or retreat ceremonies[20]. He also substituted the word Chassid for Sufi in his writings, explaining that it comes from the word Chasidah or stork which always remains aloof and alone.



It is interesting to see that even after David haNagid‘s death, Jewish mystics continued to visit his library in Aleppo and less than one hundred years later the Safed Kabbalists appeared on the scene with teachings of Kabbalah as we know it.

This group of Kabbalists also boasted a Sufi convert as reported by the Turkish traveller, Evliya Chelebi, who also describes dhikr ceremonies by Sufis at nightfall in Safed which took place twice weekly and were illuminated by oil lamps and accompanied by tambourines.  

The Jewish Kabbalists split into various brotherhoods all headed by a tzadik and different branches of mysticism were nurtured, with many practising forms of seclusion or hitbodedut.


In the meantime, the Spanish Kabbalists were also developing their particular brand of mysticism. R. Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291), for example, began to introduce a complicated form of song, head movements and breathing techniques as well as ecstatic practices very similar to the dhikr ceremony which involves the constant repetition of the names of G-d until one attains a trancelike state.


In the 1600’s, the false messiah and mystic Shabbatai Tzvi, who had more than half of the Jewish world follow him, emerged on the scene with another great rebirth and spurt of Jewish mysticism. He is said to have performed zhikr ceremonies with Bektashi dervishes, even before he converted later to Islam and according to some accounts, he associated with Sufis, particularly with the Mevlevi Order of Sufism. His followers were known to have adopted some Bektashi rituals.

His influence is not to be underestimated or swept under the carpet (see KOTZK BLOG 117).
He died in 1676 and the Baal Shem Tov was born just over 20 years later in a generation known to have been filled with secret followers of Shabbatai Tzvi. 


During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, there were still Jewish Sufis in Iran (Persia). They were headed by the Chacham (as Sephardic rabbis were called) Siman Tov Melamed of Meshad. He wrote amongst other books, a Sufi commentary on Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, in Persian. In it he included the following poem:

G-dly and radiant like roses

The Sufis are...

Leaders benevolent, guides of those who strayed

Are the Sufis.

Freed from the day of Punishment

Are the Sufis.”

Obviously, not everyone shared his love of the Sufis and a certain Jacob took umbrage and wrote a counter-poem:

“Let not Satan deceive you,                                                                                                                       

Lest you forfeit (your) religion and (your) faith(s)...                                                                                

But he (Siman Tov Melamed) turns common instead of chosen,                                                     

[Now] what religion can he call his own?”[21]

Despite numerous quotations from Rabeinu Avraham (and Bachya Ibn Pakuda and other early Jewish mystics) in addition to apparent historical evidence, not everyone agrees with this alleged Sufi connection.

Some Jewish historians vehemently refute this association: Gershom Scholem, for example, stated that Sufism had no effect on the development of the Kabbalah.

A.S. Halkin wrote: “In all the vast literature of the Kabbalah, there is no trace of a non-Jewish source or influence”. 

And Martin Buber, although he does write about similarities between a particular Sufi and Chassidic tale, is quick to point out that this in no way proves: “any connection between Sufism and Hasidism...”

The reader will have to decide for him or herself whether the Sufi influence is real or imagined.


The story of Rabeinu Avraham and his (alleged or apparent) Sufi connection is only one part of the story. In addition to his mystical and theological writings he also wrote copiously on Halacha, and was not afraid to express his views:


In his Letter Concerning the Aggadot (non-Halachic sayings) of the Rabbis, he wrote that we are only duty bound to listen to the Sages with regard to their Halachik decisions but not with regard to their views on science (such as medicine and the age of the universe etc.):

We are not defend them (the Sages) and uphold their views in all of their sayings in medicine, in science and in astronomy, or to believe them [in those matters] as we believe them regarding the explanation of the Torah… we find that they made medicinally related statements in the Gemara which have not been justified or validated...

This stance is seen as hostile to many who regard the Sages as absolutely infallible in all matters. Some (like R. Moshe Shapiro, who studied under the Chazon Ish) simply claimed that this text, quoted above, was an outright forgery. Some go so far as to contend that anyone who denies anything written in the Gemara, even if about scientific matters, is liable for the death penalty.

For these reasons, let alone the allegations of Sufism, R. Aharon Kotler said that the view of Rabeinu Avraham is unacceptable and out of the parameters of our Mesora (Tradition).

On the other hand, R. Yitzchak Hertzog (the teacher of Rav Elyashiv) wrote:

the attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni, the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages...”

This view clearly endorses Rabeinu Avraham and places him within the Mesora again.[22]
Either way, the reader will have to decide once again whether Rabeinu Avraham is ‘in’ or ‘out’.


The Halachik controversy continued when Rabeinu Avraham wrote[23] that some customs (as opposed to Halachot) can sometimes be abolished in light of new evidence and different circumstances:

You may say anything you want in this matter, it brings us back to what I said earlier that the widespread customs (minhagim) whether they are popular or unpopular, ancient or recent, done in front of respected [sages] or not, if we can prove them to be defective, we may not follow them.” [24]

There is, therefore, no reason for a fully rational person, one whose intellect is perfect, to oppose things that were clarified by a later [sage] who uses correct proofs, by arguing that earlier authorities have not said so. It is well known that many of the Geonim argued on earlier ones unearthing things the earlier ones did not discover.”

Needless to say, these words did not go down well with those of the view that the earlier Sages were, without exception, always and absolutely infallible in everything they wrote - leaving no room for later Sages who operate within the same Halachik guidelines to come up with non-fossilised rulings, particularly when dealing with customs.


There has always been something fascinatingly elusive about Rambam’s only son, Rabeinu Avraham.
He was more popular during his lifetime than was his father, and he also wrote more books than his father.

In modern times, there have been two attempts to discredit Rabeinu Avraham, which may account for his perceived ‘fall from grace’.

The first (and according to Dr Henry Abramsom the main reason) was the Wissenschaft des Judenthums of the early 1800’s in Germany. They were a group of Jews intent on creating an ‘acceptable’ image of Jews in the eyes of the German intelligentsia. 

They were comprised of academics and historians such as Graetz and Gieger who were happy to portray the image a Jew like Maimonides the physician and rationalist – but intentionally obscured his son because of his bent towards mysticism and Sufism. This body of Jewish thinkers was very influential because they were the modern scholars who wrote about and shaped much of our understanding of Jewish history as we know it today.

Fortunately, much of what we now know about Rabeinu Avraham has only come to light after the demise of the German group, in the aftermath of the discovery of the Cairo Geniza in the late 1800’s where many of his prolific writings were discovered. Were it not for the Geniza findings he may have remained an obscure and insignificant footnote to Jewish history.

The second attempt at discrediting him has been more recently when some in the Chareidi world has classified him as no longer part of Mesora (their view of the official path of the authentic Torah Tradition). 

This was primarily because of his questioning the technical accuracy of the Talmudic Sages’ knowledge of science and medicine (even though he accepted their rulings on Halacha).

Between the ‘outrageous’ allegation that elements of Sufism informing Jewish Mysticism and the ‘audacious’ observation that facts should inform ancient science - Rabeinu Avraham HaChassid who ushered in ‘the most productive and creative epoch in the entire history of Jewish mysticism’, has been disparaged by both the left and the right.

It is sad yet fascinating to see how Jewish history has treated this enigmatic master who was: “tall and lean” in the words of one of his contemporary Arab medical colleagues, “with a pleasant manner and refined way of speaking”.


The Guide to Serving G-d, translated by R. Wincelberg and published by Feldheim.
Jewish Sufis in Iran, by Dr Alan Brill 2009.
Judeo-Arabic Studies: Proceedings of the Founding Conference of the Study of Judeo Arabic, by Paul Fenton.
Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom, by R. Dr Natan Slifkin.
“The Literary Legacy of David ben Joshua, Last of the Maimonidean Negadim.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 75, 1 (1984), by Paul Fenton.
Treatise of the Pool, by Paul Fenton.
Jewish pietism of the Sufi type, by Mireille Loubet
Books of Contemplation: The Medieval Jewish Mystical Sources, by Mark Verman.

[1]R. Avraham authored medical works in addition to his halachic and philosophical writings.
[2] The Rambam’s family held positions of leadership in Egypt for five consecutive generations.
[3] One such work was entitled: Sefer Birkat Avraham. The Jews of Yemen communicated with R. Avraham sending him thirteen questions on halacha on one occasion, and another seven on another.
[4] This was recently translated into English under the title ‘The Guide to Serving G-d’ published by Feldheim.

[5] Books of Contemplation, The Medieval Jewish Mystical Sources, by Mark Verman. P. 8. This ties in with the previous post about Bachya Ibn Pakuda, who wrote that he found a ‘wasteland’ of ethical and mystical literature from the end of the Talmudic period (500) up to his day (around 1000). This was probably the ‘sporadic activity’ referred to by Verman.

[6] See Mireille Loubet, Jewish pietism of the Sufi type. 
[7] Or literally: ‘The Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of G-d’.
[8] Defined as: ‘intended for or likely to be understood by the general public’.
[9] Defined as: ‘intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest’.
[10] Treatise of the Pool (intro), Fenton, pg. 8
[11] Fenton, Paul. Judeo-Arabic Studies: Proceedings of the Founding Conference of the Study of Judeo Arabic (Norman Golb ed.), pg. 95.
[12] Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was later to write that seclusion or hitbodedut was indeed a practice of the ancient prophets.
[13] Isaiah 50:10.
[14] This is the Tanna R. Chanania ben Chizkiyah ben Garon who lived at the time of Hillel and took 300 barrels of oil to his attic where he remained until he got resolution as to whether to include the Book of Ezekiel in the cannon of the Tanach. The Talmud (Shabbat 13b) says: “Chanania is to be remembered for were it not for him the Book of Ezekiel would have been hidden.’
[15] This is significant because in later history the Jewish mystical movements followed along similar lines to the extent that the various groups and their leaders actually became the distinguishing characteristics of those schools.
[16] Extract from Maimonidesletter to Joseph ben Judah.
[17] Even today, writers like R. Wincelberg (in his translation of  Rabeinu Avraham’s The Guide to Serving G-d published by Feldheim) try to downplay the differences between Rambam the rationalist and his son the mystic, by saying that essentially (except in two instances) the two followed the same path. He says that Rambam provided the ‘background’ for those of his son who ‘elucidates and expands upon his father’s teachings’.
This view, according to R. Israel Drazin, turns Rambam the rationalist into a ‘second grade mystic’.  He continues that most scholars agree that Rabeinu Avraham followed many of the ways of the Sufi mystics and that the father, being the great rationalist who would not have agreed with many of his son’s notions.
“(Rabeinu) Abraham”, writes Drazin, “disparages the human body. Perfection, he says, lies in the disassociation of a person from his body and bodily needs; while his father sees that perfection lies in understanding the body and using it properly”.
[18] The last Maimonidean to hold this title.
[19] Paul Fenton, Jewish Quarterly Review.
[20]“The Literary Legacy of David ben Joshua, Last of the Maimonidean Negadim.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 75, 1 (1984): 1-56, by Paul Fenton.
[21] See: Jewish Sufis in Iran, by Dr Alan Brill 2009.[22] Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom.
[23] This was regarding the issue of not prostrating during prayer. It was originally a Jewish custom and he wanted to reintroduce it.
[24] The quotation continues: “For it is not impossible for later [scholars] to clarify matters that earlier ones could not; it is quite common for the later ones to build on what the earlier ones have already clarified giving them the ability to progress further and arrive at conclusions that are different from the earlier ones…. This is not because the later ones are always and in all circumstances better than the earlier ones but because they have the ability to analyze the sayings of the earlier generations building on them and learning from them. Using deductive rules they [the later generations] can arrive at conclusions that obligate us to act accordingly as long as they make sense and are based on accepted logical rules….”

Sunday 19 November 2017



The Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE.) - One of the largest Empires in world history.


It is not easy, in today’s volatile political climate, to contemplate the sharing of knowledge which often occurred between Jews and Muslims one thousand years ago, particularly in Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain. On the other hand, it was not always as 'golden' utopic as it is often made out have been.

Nevertheless, it is true that historically a great society of what is called Judeo-Arabic culture existed. In fact, a unique form of writing was even developed when Jews began to write Classical Arabic in Hebrew script, and it was this style of writing that characterised much of our classical rabbinical literature at that time.

An example of Judeo-Arabic writing as found in the Cairo Geniza.

One area of cultural and philosophical crossover, which appears to have been unknown to - or ignored by - many today, was the inter-relationship between Jews and Sufis.

My intention in this article is to neither promote nor denigrate Sufism. It is simply to share the fascinating story behind a book, Chovot haLevavot, which many of us have lying on our bookshelves.


A number of our classical rabbis were known to have interacted quite extensively with the Sufi movement. This is surprising because Sufism has been variously defined as ‘Islamic mysticism’ and ‘the inward dimension of Islam’.

The early Sufis were known for their asceticism or self-discipline. Sufism emerged as a mystical alternative and a reaction to the materialistic, secular and politically powerful Umayyad Caliphate (661-750). This Caliphate, one of the four established after the death of Muhammad, conquered an area which became one of the largest empires in human history and included 62 million people, almost 30 percent of the world’s population at the time.

One of the rabbis who, it appears, interacted with this movement was the Spanish philosopher Bachya[1] ibn Pakuda, author of Chovot haLevavot (Duties of the Heart). He originally compiled the work in Arabic in the year 1040[2], under the title Al-Hidaja ila Faraid al-Qulub (Guide to the Duties of the Heart) and in 1160 it was translated into Hebrew by Yehuda ibn Tibbon[3].

Until the beginning of the 20th century, when an old manuscript was discovered in the Paris Library, it was thought that there were no other books authored by Bachya ibn Pakuda.[4]

Essentially, in Rabeinu Bachya’s view, the rabbis of his time were so involved with Talmudic and legalistic study that did not place enough emphasis on either the ethical teachings or the inner - or spiritual - aspects of Judaism.

Accordingly, he took a number of concepts from the relatively new trend in mysticism that was becoming attractive to the Spanish Muslim world in which he lived and infused them into Judaism.

For example, the ethical writings of the Sufis such as Al-Harawi are paralleled and reflected under identical titles in Chovot haLevavot.

Rabeinu Bachya’s book is divided into ten chapters or ‘Gates’ through which one has to pass in order to reach a state of mindful and spiritual awareness. This style of writing is identical to that of the Sufis who also wrote in ‘Gates’, not chapters.

Let’s look at how Rabeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda tells the story in his own words:


In the ‘Ninth Gate’ which deals with categories of self-discipline, he refers to the Perushim or ascetics[5].

“(There are) men who pursue the highest extreme of asceticism, to be like spiritual beings (angels, i.e. non-physical beings). They renounce everything that distracts them from G-d. They leave civilization to dwell in the deserts, the wastelands, and the high mountains, places where there is no companionship and no acquaintance. 

They eat whatever can be found, vegetation growing on the soil and leaves of the trees. They dress in worn garments and raw wool. They take shelter in the rocks. Their fear of the Creator drives away fear of the created beings.[6]

Sufis, or Perushim, were also characterized by their asceticism and detachment from this world and its pleasures. The very name Sufi comes from the Arabic ‘suf’ which means ‘woollen clothes’ or ‘rough garb’ which may be related to our textual reference to ‘raw wool’.

Bachya Ibn Pakuda goes on to explain that this approach is considered too extreme from a Jewish point of view which would prescribe a more middle path.[7]

This middle path, he says, is where people “practice the most lenient form of abstinence. They detach themselves from the world in their hearts and minds, but join in with others externally to cultivate society by ploughing and sowing.”


As Rabein Bachya records in his introduction, there was a need to infuse Judaism with more than just observances or what he called Chovot haEivarim (Duties of the Body). Judaism needed something much deeper, yet equally authoritative although less known from a Torah point of view at that time, namely the ‘Duties of the Heart‘.

This infusion of a deeper spiritual dimension into the Judaism of his day was to become Bachya ibn Pakuda’s hallmark and life’s mission.

He jarringly proclaims that both ritual and the external aspects of Torah were well covered by the Sages after the period of the Talmud, but that they neglected the inner and spiritual aspects of Judaism:

They (the Jewish Sages) composed many works dealing with the precepts (rituals)...
I examined these writings but failed to find among them a book specially devoted to the inner wisdom...
No work had been composed, systematically explaining the roots (of the inner Torah).
This area of thought is a wasteland.”

Then he says that at first, he thought that perhaps the reason why not much was written[8] about Jewish spirituality was because it simply was not a priority or a requirement of the Torah.

However, he continues:

“I contemplated on the condition of low observance of them (i.e. the mystical tradition) from my contemporaries (i.e. the rabbis of his day) due to their inability to comprehend them...and unable to perform them or toil in them (and) I was stirred by the grace of G-d to inquire into the inner (spiritual and mystical) science.

This clearly shows his intent to explore this mystical tradition which appeared to have been neglected by the Jewish world until then.[9]


Bachya Ibn Pakuda expresses some reticence and even fear of alienation from his peers, by writing a book about the ‘inner wisdom’, but changed his mind because:

I knew that many great works were lost due to fear, and many losses were caused by concern...Therefore, I found myself obligated to force my soul to bear the task of composing this book, and resolved to expound its topics with whatever language or analogy would make the matters more understandable.”


Then he makes an astounding admission leaving little doubt as to his source of inspiration:

I quoted also the pious and wise of other nations whose words have come down to us, hoping that my readers’ hearts would incline to them and give heed to their wisdom, as for example; the words of (their) philosophers, the ethical teaching of the ascetics and their praiseworthy customs.

According to Joseph Dan: “the original work (of Chovot haLevavot) in Arabic could easily be read as a typical Sufi book, if one disregards the frequent use of verses quoted from the Hebrew bible.[10]


And if that’s not enough, he proceeds to rebuke the ‘followers of our Torah’ for their inability to accept anything other than ‘inherited precepts’:

My goal in this book stir the simple and the negligent among the followers of our Torah who have only inherited the precepts (and laws) of our Torah...

The foolish[11] and distracted person, when he occupies himself with the Book of G-d, uses it to learn the riddles of the ancients and the historical accounts.

This last paragraph is rather telling as he appears to be challenging the style of Talmudic study of his day which he claimed was overly concerned with the ‘riddles of the ancients’ (he lived six hundred years after the completion of the Talmud which had already by then been 500 years in the making).


Dr Henry Abramson[12] points to a fascinating example of Rabeinu Bachya incorporating, literally verbatim, a Sufi teaching from a century and a half before Chovot haLevavot was written:

The following teaching is from the Sufi mystic Yachya Ibn Mu’adh (d. 871):

It was said to Yachya Ibn Mu’adh:

Tell me about G-d. What is He?

- He said: G-d is One.

What is He like?

-An all-powerful King.

Where is He?

- On the lookout.

I did not ask you about that...(i.e. I asked where is He – not what does He do)!”

The deep explanation of this teaching is that it actually does answer the question because since G-d cannot be confined to a specific geographical area, the only ‘place’ where you can find Him is when you ‘look out’ for Him as He ‘looks out’ for you. Thus you meet the Creator in that common ‘space’, provided you look out for Him.

[In a sense this is very similar to the Kotzker teaching: “Where is G-d? – G-d is where you choose to let Him in.”]

The following is what Rabeinu Bachya wrote a hundred and fifty years later in 1040[13]:

One of the wise men asked about the Creator:

What is He?

-He answered: G-d is One.

The questioner asked: What is He like?

-He answered: A great King.

He (the questioner) asked: And where is He?

-He answered: He is looking (for you)[14].

The questioner said: I did not ask you that (i.e. I didn’t ask you what He is doing but rather where he was).”

This is clearly a quotation which came directly from ‘one of the wise men’ of Sufi literature.


There are numerous references throughout the book to ‘certain wise men’.

We have just seen strong evidence that these references may point to the Sufis. This is corroborated by the admission of Rabenu Bachya himself when he says that the Jewish sages were not involved in such ‘spiritual’ wisdom but preferred the legal teachings – so he could not have been referring to the rabbis in these instances.

Here are further examples of these teachings of the undisclosed ‘wise men’:

One of the ‘wise men’ said: “The more one (thinks one) knows about the Creator, the more one becomes confused with the concept (of the Creator).”

And another ‘wise man’ said: “The one who knows the most about the Creator, knows the least about His Essence. And the one who knows nothing about Him, knows His Essence the best.”

These statements are certainly not typical of the legalistic rabbinical writings of post-Talmudic times. [15]


Although Chovot haLevavot is widely studied in many mainstream yeshivas, the first chapter is often considered too controversial and is simply left out of the curriculum.

It seems as if Rabenu Bachya pre-empted such a response when he wrote:

Some illiterate fool reading this book may stop when he comes to this (first) Gate, and say to himself: ‘Is the subject of G-d’s Oneness so hidden  from someone who has read (even) a single page of Torah that he would have to be warned and taught about it by this writer?’

In other words, the ‘fool’ will ask how deep and hidden can actually G-d be? If the student knows even one page of Torah that is enough because he knows all there is to know and there is no need to try and delve any deeper.


A startling reality of Rabeinu Bachya’s work is the absence of Prayer and Torah Study in his list of spiritual duties which can lead to perfection.[16]

According to Halacha, a prayer may be recited silently as long as the lips move to articulate the words. This precept was what made him decide to remove it from his list because the lips are physical and therefore considered ‘eivarim’ or ‘limbs’ which were too corporeal to be included the duties of the heart.

He wrote; “While words need a theme, a theme does not need words because it is possible to recite them in your heart.”[17]

Similarly, Torah study, which is accomplished through the agency of the eyes and ears, was also left out for the same reason.

It was only the obligations which were totally divorced from any form or substance that qualified for his list of ten Duties of the Heart.


Rabeinu Bachya explains why the Torah primarily addresses the legal as opposed to the spiritual code, with most of its literature revolving around narrative and ritualistic practices.

He gives the analogy of a wealthy guest arriving at his host on horseback. The host gives the horse a huge stack of straw to eat while the guest receives a relatively small plate albeit of exquisite food.[18]
In this way, he explains away most of the vast body of Torah and rabbinic literature as ‘straw for the horse’ with little quantitative content for ‘spiritual food for the soul’.

In his radical view, the Torah was given in such a way as to be understood and useful to the masses and to the lowest common denominator of the Jewish people. 

That was how he interpreted the ubiquitous saying; “The Torah speaks the language of bnei Adam (average man).”

Yet the Torah is interspersed with glimpses of the deeper spiritual wisdom which is there for the discerning to discover and uncover.[19] And he felt that the time was right for the spiritual aspect of Torah which had been ‘neglected’ so far, to begin to take its rightful place.


Rabeinu Bachya writes:

I once asked someone considered a Torah scholar something about the aforementioned science of the concealed, and he told me that study of Tradition takes precedence over these and other such studies. I (disagreed and) suggested (to him) that this was only true for people who cannot investigate these sorts of things on their own because they cannot understand or grasp it (like...children and ignorant men).”[20]

Rabeinu Bachya has a most bold approach to the role of Tradition. 

He prefers, as much as possible for all people to discover the truth for themselves (obviously within Halachik parameters). He is wary of the absolute way in which Tradition is often applied. He makes the point that, in his view, the role of Tradition is primarily for the segment of society that is childlike and spiritually unwell who cannot think as individuals.

With views like this, it is a wonder that his book enjoyed the recognition it did and still does, even by the traditionalists (although, as mentioned, they often leave out the first section).


According to Carlos Fraenkel[21], “If Judaism is true, it must agree with every true insight, even if it came from a Greek or a Muslim.

He then quotes from a passage in Toledot Yaakov Yosef (the first Chassidic book to be published by R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, a foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov) who says:

The wise man has said that there are two ‘struggles’- a ‘small struggle’ and a ‘greater struggle’”.

R. Yaakov Yosef explains that the first struggle is a physical one with weapons and war, while the second struggle involves the struggle of the evil inclination.

He may or may not have known this but source of this concept is a well-known hadith often cited by Sufi mystics: Muhammad once told a group of returnee soldiers that after the ‘small jihad’ the battle of the sword, comes the ‘greater jihad’ – the battle of the soul against pleasure.[22]

It is unlikely that the early Chassidim studied Sufi writings but they did study Chovot haLevavot which also included an (anonymous) version of this particular hadith.


Could there be a parallel between the times of Rabeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda and those of the early Chassidic movement of the 1700’s?

The following extract is from Rabeunu Bachya, referring to his generation of a thousand years ago. It could have just as easily been said by the Baal Shem Tov of his generation two hundred and fifty years ago:

The majority of people of our generation scoff at the wisdom of most of the physical (Halachik) mitzvot, let alone the (mystical and spiritual) duties of the heart. When (on rare occasions) one of them is moved to delve into the wisdom of Torah it is always for an ulterior motive: either to be called a sage by the people, or to garner a reputation among the so-called greats”.

And the solution for both of them was to infuse the Judaism of their day - which had fossilized primarily into a study of legal codes - with a significant mystical and spiritual component which spoke straight to the heart.


Let us be clear: The suggestion is not that Rabeinu Bachya was a Sufi.

However, he certainly appears to have been influenced by the move towards ‘inner spirituality’ as practised by the Sufis with whom he interacted and was clearly influenced by.

This caused him to do much soul-searching (as is evident from his Introduction).

He then is forced to explore Judaism even deeper and discovers that elements of his search are indeed alluded to all over the Torah.

In this sense, his interaction with the mystics of his time forced him to uncover the mysticism already hidden within his own Judaism, which according to him was severely neglected at that time.

So, if this analysis is correct, it would make Bachya ibn Pakuda one of the early fathers of the reawakening of Jewish Mysticism as we know it. It was he, who against the prevailing tide of his generation, reminded us that in addition to a mind and code we have a heart and soul. 

He tried to show that serving G-d with the heart is not just reshut or a wanton and superfluous sentiment, but instead a necessary chiyuv or Halachik obligation – indeed a ‘duty’ of the heart - hence his Chovot haLevavot.

The amazing thing, though, was the nature of the catalyst which may have begun his reawakening, and the whole process of his radical soul searching - which may have informed his then-revolutionary brand of theology - and which today has largely evolved to become part of the defining ethos of much of contemporary Judaism.


Chovot haLevavot, by Rabeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda.

Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World, by Carlos Fraenkel.

A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue - Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda's "Duties of the Heart", by Prof  Diana Lobel. 

The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences edited by Joseph Dan.                                                                    

[1] Also known as Bechay or Bechayey.
[2] This is also, coincidently, the date given for the changeover from the Gaonic period of Jewish history to the period of the Rishonim. In this sense, Rabeinu Bachya could either be described as one of the last Gaonim or one of the first Rishonim. (Some accounts record the date of his writing Chovot haLevavot at 1080.)
[3] R. Yehudah Ibn Tibbon made it his mission to translate many Judeo-Arabic classics into Hebrew for the Jews living in Provance, France, who were unable to read Arabic. These include Rav Saadia Gaon’s Sefer haEmunot veHadeot and R Yehuda haLevi’s Kuzari. Interestingly, Chovot haLevavot was the first work Ibn Tibbon set out to translate.
[4]The work is entitled Ma’ani al-Nafs (Reflections on the Soul). Some of his other writings in poem form are included in some Machzorim.
[5] Some of the extracts variously follow the translations of R. Moses Hyamsom, R. Yosef Sebag and R. Yaakov Feldman.
[6] Shaar haPerishut ch. 3.
[7] For example he believes that Jews should not be so extreme but that: “the first step in (Jewish) abstinence is planning ways to earn a living...which means that you should have an occupation that will give you enough of an income. Shaar haPerishut ch. 5.
[8] This touches on the thorny issue of when the Zohar was written. Traditionally this mystical work was authored by R. Shimon bar Yochai. That is the mainstream position. But there were many rabbis who believed its origins were much later.  See Mysteries Behind the Origins of the Zohar.
[9] Clearly Jewish mysticism has ancient beginnings. This is evidenced by writings like the Sefer Yetzirah which is regarded as being from pre-history. And clearly, Jewish mysticism did exist during Talmudic times as is evidenced by Maaser Breishit, Merkava (known as the Heichalot) Literature. (Hagiga 2:1) But remember Rabeinu Bachya is referring to a lack of mystical writings during POST-Talmudic times, over a period of about five hundred years between the completion of the Talmud and his birth.
However, this may have only have been true for the Jews of the West because, according to Gershom Scholem (Origins of Kaballah, p.19): “...during post-talmudic times, in the Gaonic period (from the seventh until the beginning of the eleventh century), a new mystical wave is said to have swept over Judaism, particularly in Babylonia, and stimulated a broad literature of Merkabah-mysticism and kindred texts.”
[10] See The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences
edited by Joseph Dan, p. 75
[11] It’s interesting to see that Rambam uses similar language when referring to the Torah observant community when he calls them ‘stupid’. See KOTZK BLOG 146.
[12] Citing: A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue - Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda's "Duties of the Heart", by Prof Diana Lobel.
[13] Some put the date at around 1080, forty years later.
[14] R. Yaakov Feldman translates ‘bitzipia’ as ‘in our sights’. Interesting that the Hebrew root word ‘tzafa’ which means ‘to look for’ would have read, in old Hebrew as ‘safa’ (as the tzadi letter was called sodi and pronounced as an ‘s’ sound). Thus one who looks for G-d may have been called a Tzufi or Sufi.
[15]Here are some more of his teachings which include non-legalistic ideas such as: “replacing conversation with thought” – “moving the heaviest limb should be harder than moving the tongue” - “doing favours to others altruistically” – “avoiding places where people gather to eat and drink” – “speaking and eating only as much as necessary” – “touching nothing that does not belong to you so as to avoid theft“ – “reading like you have never read before” – “studying like a beginner, not relying of what you already think you know” – “communicating with your soul” -  and he again quotes a ‘wise man’ who says that we be “the one who listens, thinks, knows and does” rather than the opposite.
[16] He does, of course, address these issues but they do not merit a dedicated ‘Gate’.
[17] Gate 8 ch. 3. He is not suggesting, of course, that regular prayer should be abolished, just “that the prayer in the heart should concur with the prayer that is said.
[18] Gate 1 ch. 10.
[19] This too was the view of Ibn Kaspi and Rambam who also differentiated between ‘hamon ha’am’ (the masses) and ‘yechidei hesegula’ (intellectually aware).
[20] Author’s introduction.
[21] Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World, by Carlos Fraenkel, p. 65.
[22] This is not unusual: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once quoted a ‘maamar chazal’ (a teaching of the rabbis) which said: “More than the Jew has kept Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jew.” The only problem was that it was not a teaching of the sages but, ironically, a saying from Achad Ha’am!