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!

1 comment:

  1. fascinating article. thank you
    would you be able to put in the references for chovos halevovos ?

    One of the wise men asked about the Creator:

    What is He?


    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).”