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….”

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