Sunday 29 July 2018



Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia (1240-1291) was born in Zaragosa, Spain, in the Hebrew year 5000. He is regarded as one of the ‘neglected mystics’, known alternately as a ‘prophetic’, ‘linguistic’ and ‘ecstatic’ Kabbalist[1]

He was a fascinating and enigmatic personality because not only did he try to convert the Pope to Judaism, but he also claimed to have been the Messiah.


R. Avraham Abulafia’s teacher was his own father, R. Shmuel, who ensured that his son was well educated in Talmud.

From the age of eighteen, when his father died, he began to travel, seemingly aimlessly, and he arrived in Acco, Israel, in search of the famous river known as Sambation. According to tradition, this river flowed so strongly during the week that it was impossible to cross, and then ceased to flow on Shabbat, when it was forbidden to cross.  Additionally, he tried to search for some of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who had according to legend, crossed over that river - and rumours abounded that, at that time, they had begun to return to Israel.

He also wanted to visit Biblical places and ‘re-experience’ some of the ancient events.

However, upon arrival in the Land of Israel, he found it in turmoil as a result of the Crusades and was forced to return to Europe.

He found himself in Capua, southern Italy, where he began a relentless study of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, under R. Hillel of Verona. He later taught the Guide to students in Greece.

Mainstream Kabbalah was not deep enough for him and when he returned to Spain, he began experiencing ‘visions’ while studying under Baruch Togarmi who specialised in Tzeruf, or letter combinations involving linguistic manipulations and permutations known as Gematria, Notrikon and Temurah

He additionally studied Ramban’s (Nachmanides’) mystical teachings, which, at that time was only studied in small secret groups.


Abulafia drew also from some of the earlier mysticism of Chassidei Ashkenaz, which was founded by R. Yehuda HeChassid and flourished in Germany and France during the 12th and 13th centuries. That movement was influenced by some of the earlier Merkava techniques and included some local Germanic superstitions.[2] 

During this time the famous Raziel haMalach was most likely written by R. Elazar of Worms (although some parts of the book are much older) who also gave ‘instruction’ on how to create a Golem.

At one stage, Abulafia claimed that he felt the messianic ‘anointing oil’ being poured over him and: “When I reached to the Names and untied the seal bands, the Lord of all revealed Himself to me and made known to me His Secret, and informed me concerning the end of the exile and the beginning of the Redemption.”
Abulafia began attracting a number of students, most notably Yosef Gikatilla (whom Rambam called ‘one of the most intelligent of the commentators’, see here.) Interestingly though, for some reason (which may become apparent later) Gikatilla does not mention Abulafia in any of his writings.
According to Professor Moshe Idel, Abulafia started his scholarly career with a strong influence from the rationalist Rambam, who had died just thirty-six years earlier. He then moved on to the mysticism of Kabbalah. Abulafia then, at the age of 31 created a surprising synthesis between Rambam’s rational philosophy and the mysticism of Kabbalah, particularly that of R. Elazar of Worms which is somewhat magical and places emphasis on linguistics, letters and the power of language.
This he did because he believed he was a Prophet and he also believed that he was the Messiah.[3] Thus he developed a powerful synthesis between two dominant forms of Jewish culture which had flourished during the generation preceding him.
(Ironically, there is some speculation that Rambam may have been inadvertently responsible for the popularity of mysticism during the 1200’s, which arose as a protest against his extreme rationalism.)
In creating this unusual synthesis between Chassidei Ashkenaz and Rambam, Abulafia developed a rather unique model of Kabbalah:
The Chassidei Ashkenaz - although mystical - were relatively conservative, while Abulafia was far more explorative and innovative.
Rambam, on the other hand, particularly in his philosophical writings, was quite open to allow for some allegorical interpretations of various aspects of the Torah narrative. (For example, he wrote that the sacrifices were granted to the early Israelites as a ‘concession’ for having come out of an idolatrous culture where sacrifices were the spiritual norm – but it was not to be the preferred Torah model. See here).
Abulafia then ‘borrowed’ this license to use allegorical interpretation but in a very different way to Rambam. He completely broke down and reconstructed the letters of the biblical text until they no longer related to the plain meaning and then rebuilt them in a different manner entirely to create a new ‘text’ – which he then used as a basis for the mystical interpretation and experience. By deconstructing the letters of the Torah to such an extent that they were no longer cohesive, he showed the mystical practitioner how to deconstruct his own inherent worldview and then to reconstruct a new spiritual worldview.[4]
Perhaps one could say, therefore, that Abulafia took and expanded upon the mysticism of Chassidei Ashkenaz while neglecting their conservatism – and at the same time he took precedent from Rambam for radical allegorical and ‘deconstructive’ interpretation of the Torah text, while neglecting his rationalism.
According to Professor Joseph Dan, most of Abulafia’s teachings remained available only in manuscript form and were not published until the 1990’s and even later. This means that until relatively recently not much of his approach was widely known to those who did not have access to his manuscripts. [5]
Many Kabbalistic manuscripts are housed in the Vatican Library and interestingly, Professor Idel was granted easy access to them. He even thanks them by writing:
I take this opportunity to thank the Vatican Library, late as these thanks may be, for the generosity that contributed not only to my modest studies of the Kabbalistic material, but also of many other scholars, who also benefited from the liberal approach of the directors of that Library.”[6]
Abulafia used combinations of letters, pronunciations, head and hand movements, concentration and breathing exercises. Abulafia was particularly interested in the Hebrew language although he did use Italian, Latin, Greek, Tatar, Arabic and Basque in order to ascertain Gematrias, or numerical values.
According to some[7], the authorship of the Zohar is even attributed to Abulafia (as Abulafia was the same age as Moshe de León. See here.)
While his Kabbalistic colleagues were exploring the Ten Sefirot, or Spheres, Abulafia felt this approach was worse than Christianity with their emphasis on the Trinity.
We see that Abulafia opposed and even ridiculed the Kabbalistic system of the Sefirot and substituted it with a system based on letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It is also possible that he was influenced by the Sufis.[8] (For more on Sufi influence, see Chovot haLevavot and Avraham ben haRambam.)
R. Ariel Bar Tzadok points out that the Spanish and Zoharic Ten Sefirot system, which we are familiar with today, is completely different from the earlier System of Sefirot as described originally in Sefer Yetzirah. In the earlier model, there was no concept of the Tree of Life where the Sefirot are divided into a middle, a left and a right side, and they did not have names like Chachma Bina etc.
In 1280, just before Rosh haShana, Abulafia arrived in Rome in an attempt to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism. This was based on a spiritual experience he was said to have had, and the Pope’s conversion would have been a prerequisite for the imminent messianic age he envisioned.
The Pope, however, happened to be in his summer palace in Soriano at that time, which was not far from Rome, and Abulafia followed him there. But when he heard of Abulafia’s arrival, the Pope issued an order to have the ‘fanatic’ burned at the stake. On arrival in Soriano, Abulafia walked boldly past the pyre which had been set up for him, and then discovered that the Pope had suddenly died the previous night, August 22 1280, from a stroke!
Here is an interesting Zohar:
“And on the sixth day [Friday] on the twenty-fifth day of the sixth month [Elul - i.e.: just before Rosh haShana]... three high walls of the city of Rome will fall, and the great palace there will collapse and the ruler of that city will die.” [9]
In his Sefer haOt, Abulafia wrote: “His [G-d’s] adversary died, unrepentant, in Rome by the power of the Name of...G-d...His Name fashioned my tongue into a spear with which I killed them that deny Him, and I killed His enemies by a righteous judgement.”
Abulafia was thrown into jail by the Franciscans as they suspected he had something to do with the Pope’s death. He was held for 28 days and then released.
Pope Nicolas III was a friend of St Francis of Assisi who was the founder of the Franciscan order.
It is also possible that Abulafia was interested in meeting the Pope as he was aware that in Franciscan circles, meditation on the names of Jesus was becoming a popular technique at that time. [10]
After the incident with the Pope, he made his way to Sicily proclaiming himself as not just a Prophet but as the Messiah as well.
When word reached R. Shlomo ben Aderet - known as Rashba (1235-1310) - about some of Abulafia’s messianic enterprises, he immediately excommunicated Abulafia.  Rashba happened to be a (Spanish) Kabbalist himself but Abulafia was considered far too radical for the mainstream Kabbalists.
Nevertheless, many of Abulafia’s works were translated into Latin by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and were taught during the Italian Renaissance.
Four centuries later, one of the Ari Zal’s foremost students, R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620) quoted Abulafia in his Sha’arei Kedusha. The work was composed in four parts. Part Four included meditative techniques from Abulafia. Interestingly, this Part Four remained unpublished for four hundred years and was published for the first time in the 1990’s!
Five centuries later, the Chida (R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai 1724-1807) supported and endorsed Abulafia. He writes regarding one of Abulafia’s books entitled Chayeh Olam haBa:
“This is a book written by R. Abraham Abulafia, concerning the circle of the seventy-two letter [Divine] Name, which I saw on the parchment manuscript. And I know that his Responsa, sec. 548, and R. Yashar [R. Joseph Solomon del Medigo of Candia], in his Sefer Metzaref leChachma, expressed contempt towards him, as one of the worthless people, or worse.
However, I say in truth I see him as a great rabbi, among the master of secrets, and his name is great in Israel, and none may alter his words...”[11]
However, for the most part, Abulafia was always regarded as somewhat askance.
As a result of being excommunicated by Rashba, who has little patience for messianic claimants, Abulafia’s Kabbalah was excluded from official Spanish schools of Kabbalah.
When Abulafia realised that he had so much Jewish opposition, he decided to turn to the Christians and teach them his mysticism.
He wrote in Sefer haOt:
“And G-d commanded that he speak to the Gentiles of uncircumcised heart and flesh, and so he did. He spoke to them, and they believed in the message of G-d. However, they did not return to G-d, because they trusted in their swords and bows and G-d hardened their impure, uncircumcised hearts.”[12]
Abulafia didn’t try tried to cosy up to non-Jews. He believed that neither Christianity nor Islam were even vague copies of Judaism but that they bore no resemblance to it whatsoever.
Amazingly, in his Sefer Mafteach haShemot, Abulafia points out the differences between himself and Jesus:
“The Greek Christians call him Messiah...[The Jewish Messiah] shall stand up against him [Jesus]. He will inform everyone that what Jesus said to the Christians, that he is G-d, and the son of G-d, is completely false, for he did not receive power from the Unified Name. Rather, all his power depends upon an image, hung upon the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, while the matter of the Messiah depends upon the Tree of Life. It is the pillar which upholds all. Jesus, however, was hung bodily because he relied upon a material tree, while a spiritual matter, which is divine intellect, gave the Messiah eighteen years of life [referring to Abulafia himself who had been the ‘Messiah’ for the past eighteen years since his vision of the anointing oil]...”
Accordingly, Jesus represented the Tree of Knowledge which was less spiritual than the Tree of Life which was a metaphor for the deep mysticism which Abulafia was expounding.
In Sefer Sitrei Torah he continues:
“The Torah called him [Jesus] an ‘alien god.’ Understand this well for it is a great secret.” -The numerical value of Yeshu [Jesus] is 316 which is the same as ‘elohei neichar’ or alien gods.
All this may explain in some way why Abulafia was obsessed with the notion of converting the Pope (the contemporary representative of Jesus) to Judaism.
Abulafia then settled on the tiny island of Comino (in the archipelago of Malta) and no one is sure what happened to him from there on. Comino was a common place of exile for Knights and other leaders who had fallen out of favour. 
On the issue of Abulafia’s messianic enterprises, it should be stressed that his focus was not on national redemption, but rather on the personal redemption of each individual - Jew and non-Jew -from their physical materialism and corporealism.
He wrote three commentaries on Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed[13], three commentaries on Sefer Yetzira[14] as well as a commentary on the Torah[15].
Additionally, he wrote practical manuals on prophetic experiences[16].
Abulafia describes the sensing of another ‘spirit’ within one’s body. In his Otzar Eden Ganuz he writes:
“And you shall feel another spirit awakening within yourself and strengthening you and passing over your entire body...”[17]
Then one perceives the vision of a human form, which is closely linked to his own physical appearance as if one was standing in front of one’s mystical ‘double’.
This being then begins to talk and to teach.”
Abulafia expands on this in his Sefer haCheshek:
“[A]nd sit as though a man is standing before you and waiting for you to speak with him; and he is ready to answer you concerning whatever you may ask him, and you say "speak" and he answers […] and begin then to pronounce [the name] and recite first "the head of the head" [i.e. the first combination of letters], drawing out the breath and at great ease; and afterwards go back as if the one standing opposite you is answering you; and you yourself answer, changing your voice[.]”[18]    

The Heart and the Fountain, by Joseph Dan.
The Prophetic Kabbalah of Avraham Abulafia, Lecture by R. Ariel Bar Tzadok.
Ascensions on High in Jewish Mysticism, by Moshe Idel.
Language, Torah and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia, by Moshe Idel.
The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, by Moshe Idel.
Kabbalistic Manuscripts in the Vatican Library, by Moshe Idel.

Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, by Moshe Idel.

[1] In Hebrew: Kabbalah Nevu’it and Kabbalat haShemot.
[2] This is according to R. Ariel Bar Tzadok in his lecture entitled The Prophetic Kabbalah of Avraham Abulafia.
[3] From a talk Prof. Moshe Idel on Abraham Abulafia.
[4]Professor Idel describes this method as follows:
 “If the allegorical method of the medieval Jewish philosophers [such as Rambam] reinterpreted Scripture in novel ways, this was done on the implicit or explicit assumption that the novelty had no impact on the structure of the text whose integrity was safeguarded from the structural point of view. This is also the case in the symbolical interpretation of the theosophical Kabbalists...these Kabbalists were anxious to indicate repeatedly that the plain meaning of the text is to be preserved, as they leave intact the order of the letters in the text...
With Abulafia,...from the moment he applies the advanced methods, which literally destroy the regular order of the text, the biblical texture is conceived only as a starting point which cannot impose its peculiar structure upon the strong interpreter... The phenomenon of deestablishing the biblical text is to be understood as part of a feeling that the divine spirit is present and active again... Basic for the understanding of the deconstructive action of Abulafia's advanced stages of interpretation is the conception that each and every letter can be considered a divine name in itself.”
[5] See The Heart and the Fountain, by Joseph Dan, Ch 10, p. 121.
[6] See Kabbalistic Manuscripts in the Vatican Library, by Moshe Idel.
[7] M. H. Landauer in Orient, Lit. 1845-46.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Zohar vol. 3 fol. 212b. According to those who believe the Zohar was authored by Moshe de León, it is interesting to note that he lived between 1240 and 1305. This would coincide with our date of 1280 when Abulafia journeyed to the Pope.

[10] Moshe Idel questions the notion of Abulafia wanting to convert the Pope. Instead, he suggests that he may have wanted to discuss matters of authentic religion with the Pope. See Moshe Idel -- Kabbalistic Manuscripts in the Vatican Library.

[11] See the introduction to The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, by Moshe Idel.
[12] See Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, by Moshe Idel, p. 47.
[13] Sefer haGeulah, Sefer Chayei haNefesh and Sefer Sitrei Torah,
[14] Otzar Eden Ganuz, Gan Na’ul and a third which is untitled.
[15] Sefer Maftechot haTorah.
[16] Chayei haOlam haBah, Or haSechel, Sefer haCheshek and Imrei Shefer.
[17] Oxford Ms. 1580 fols. 163b-164a.
[18] New York Ms. JTS 1801, fol. 9a; British Library Ms. 749, fols. 12a-12b.

Sunday 22 July 2018



In this article, we will look at a number of very different attitudes and approaches towards the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. The intention is not to persuade the Reader one way or the other, but rather to show just how diverse some of these approaches are one from the other:


Let us begin with some very strong theosophical argument as put forth by the student of the Ari Zal, R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620)[1]:

“Why is the exile taking so long to end? Why has Moshiach not yet come?
I have found the following explanation:
It is due to the lack of study of the inner parts of Torah.
One who places his focus to only study the revealed aspects of the Torah, the Mishneh and Talmud Bavli, its physical laws and details, and does not give time to study also the inner parts of the Torah, is considered to be studying for the sake of reward. He is like a body which sits in darkness without the light of Hashem.
This was precisely the sin of Adam Harishon who chose to eat from the tree of good and evil. This means that he chose to spend his time only studying the revealed aspects of Torah and repulsed from taking from the tree of life, which is the study of Kaballa.
This was also the sin of the Eiruv Rav [Mixed Multitude], who asked Moshe to only teach them the revealed aspects of the Torah and not its secrets, as they feared it would shorten their lives.
This is also the mistaken belief of some people today that studying the inner aspects of the Torah can lead to death prior to one’s time.
This is untrue. On the contrary, the focus in learning only the revealed aspects of Torah, and ignoring the inner aspects of Torah, is what caused the destruction of the first and second Temple, and is the cause of our long and bitter exile.
Only through tasting the tree of life, which is the study of Kaballa, will the Jewish people leave the exile. The sin of not learning the inner aspects of Torah began with Adam Harishon and when we do Teshuvah [repentance] to study this wisdom with love we will be redeemed.
Those who despise learning the inner aspects of Torah do not receive Divine success in their learning of the revealed aspects of Torah and often end up permitting that which is forbidden and prohibiting that which is permitted.”
The following is an excerpt from a letter of R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson encouraging the study of Chassidut (Neo-Kabbalistic mysticism)[2]:
“...I am happy to read in your letter that you have fixed times for the study of Torah, both Nigleh, [the Torah’s revealed, legal dimension,] and Chassidus. Surely you will be steadfast in this, for these are broad mediums to draw down and receive all forms of good, both material and spiritual.
You mention in your letter that your younger brother is now in our Holy Land. It would be appropriate to suggest to him that he contact the members of the Chassidic brotherhood in Jerusalem and explain to him, in a manner appropriate for his nature, the great importance of studying Chassidus, the Tree of Life, particularly in these generations of ikvesa diMeshicha, the time when Mashiach’s approaching footsteps can be heard. As the Zohar has promised:  With it, Israel will be redeemed from exile with kindness and mercy. Certainly, with fitting effort, you will succeed in [inspiring] your brother to start [this study]...”
Here is an excerpt from another letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe[3]:
“...Thank you for your letter of 22 Nissan which brought good tidings about the public classes you have been leading in the maamarim of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, הכ"מ, and also, that you are trying to have his directives brought into practice by the members of the Chassidic brotherhood and the temimim [Chabad students], so that they fulfil their general missions, and in particular, [the mission of] guarding our special vineyard, [i.e.,] the dissemination of the wellsprings [of Chassidus] within [the Chassidic community] and outside of it.
Please, please, strengthen and reinforce yourself in putting into practice your plan that the young men and the students review the teachings of Chassidus in different synagogues. What captured my heart in particular were your strong efforts to draw students from all the yeshivos close in order to study Chassidus and to show the path of G‑d to Jewish children of all groups in all the proper and possible ways.
If there are ordinary expenses [arising as a result of] any of these [efforts], please notify us and we will participate in them...”
This last letter emphasises not just the importance of this field of study but also the urgency and missionary-like zeal with which it must be disseminated.


R. David Bar-Hayim is most outspoken in his view on Jewish mysticism in general. He says:

“The Torah is mentioned explicitly in the Mishna...that we should not ask questions...regarding the nature of Hashem etc.

Because these things, by definition are beyond our human capacity for understanding...and beyond the scope of the human mind and soul[4] to comprehend - therefore such speculation can lead to negative results.

It can only lead to a human being postulating various ideas, making certain assumptions, or claims which are not true or accurate – and in fact, cannot be true or accurate because we simply don’t know the truth about such things.

We only know about Hashem...(through) His will as revealed to us in the Torah. Anything...beyond that, regarding Hashem Himself and the nature of his existence – and what was before and what will come after, according to the Mishna...are both superfluous and in fact pernicious.

And if a person were to say...that certain branches of Medieval Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah deal with precisely these issues that according to the Mishna...we should not...speculate about – such a person would be right.

Any discussion which one can find in various ...Kabbalistic Jewish texts, which deal with these issues, are essentially - by definition - mistaken. Because it is clear and obvious both by dint of logic...and by the dictates of the Torah, that such speculation is beyond our capacity and can therefore lead to nothing positive. In fact, it is almost certain to lead to negative outcomes.”


This last view, perhaps, also relates to the great debate between Ramban and Rambam over whether Kabbalah and the mystical tradition was an unbroken chain dating back to Sinai (like the rest of the Oral Tradition), or not.

According to Ramban, the mystical tradition was indeed an ancient tradition with roots going all the way back to the revelation at Sinai.

However, according to Rambam, although there were great mystics and prophets in the past, that tradition has been broken and we can no longer claim an uninterrupted mystical chain reaching back to Sinai.


R. Moshe Zuriel adopts an interesting stance positioning himself somewhere in the middle[5]:

“We must make mention of those misguided scholars who advertise their [alleged] knowledge of ‘Kabbalah.

Even though they might not [explicitly] tell others to ‘come and give honour to me’, however [by their demeanour] they hint and allude very clearly that they know many secrets of the world.

And they ‘solve’ issues relating to the depths of the souls of those who come knocking at their door to ask [for spiritual] advice and salvation.

[The irony is that] all this is [theurgical insinuation is actually] against the tenor and ethos of this [very] disciple."

"In fact, all that the Kabbalists have written in their books is not the revelation of secrets – because if one has not [actually] experienced the concepts [which the Kabbalists speak about, in real and not imagined reality], it is like one is just reading [mere words and simple letters of the] Alef-Bet.

Therefore all those pregnant [Kabbalistic] terms that people wax lyrical about concerning the ‘Holy Names’, ‘Spheres’ and Numerical Values etc – are mere ‘illustrations’ but not [actual] Secrets of Torah.

They are ‘speculations which depend upon a [subjective] heart’[6].

[In reality, though,] those who really do know in truth, [and have experienced] the Secrets, conceal them and reveal them only to modest students and do not reveal them [to the populace].”

Thus, according to R. Zuriel, although some true Mystics may exist, most of Kabbalistic literature just deals with ‘illustrations’ which are simply ‘like reading words and letters’ which have no bearing on true spiritual or G-dly reality.

In this view, the minuscule number of people who do know - don’t tell.
And those who do tell - don’t know.


At the end of the day, because this is such an emotional issue, one will find oneself drawn very quickly to one of these approaches at the exclusion of the others.

The different hypotheses sometimes almost appear to be like different religions.

What immediately strikes one about these perspectives is that they are so divergent from each other.

We have views like: 

Mashiach hasn’t yet come - and both Temples were destroyed - and we permit the impermissible - because we don’t study the inner Torah.”

This combined with views likening Kabbalah to: “Pernicious and mistaken speculation which is almost certain to lead to negative outcomes.”

And that: “Kabbalah is not the revelation of secrets, but simple words and letters which depend on the speculation of the heart.” 

To the discussion over whether Kabbalah truly has roots “going back to Sinai”!

It would have been nice to conclude that regardless of our emotionally charged spiritual preferences and arguments, all these views could find their place somewhere within the vastness of Torah Judaism - and that Judaism was broad enough to absorb such mutually exclusive views – but, as we have seen, this may be easier said than done.

What emerges, therefore, taking all views into account, it that is very difficult to speak of a definitive ‘Torah attitude towards Kabbalah’.

[1] Sha’ar haHakdamot, Hosafot Kuntres Eitz Chaim. Translation follows that of R. Yaakov Goldstein.
[2] Letter no. 715.
[3] This letter was sent to Rav Nachum Shemaryahu Sossonkin, an active member of the Lubavitch community in Jerusalem, on 6 Iyar, 5710.
[4] This reference to the soul should not be lost on the Reader because even a ‘spiritual experience’ is not a ‘G-dly experience’ – as G-dliness does not only infinitely transcend physicality, but it also infinitely transcends spirituality (especially when the individual himself experiencing the ‘spiritual’ is the sole arbiter of the depths of the experience.
[5] Otzarot haMussar, Chelek Bet, by R. Moshe Zuriel; p. 846.
[6] A Talmudic expression.

Sunday 15 July 2018



We all know about Tzniyut or modesty when it comes to clothing. In fact, one of the thickest books in my library is a modern English book on modesty, which for some reason, I received as a gift.
However, there is a less-known but just as important type of modesty - a 'spiritual modesty' - which one also needs to be aware of.

What follows is my translation of sections of Otzarot haMussar by Rabbi Moshe Zuriel:[1]

NOTE: I have sacrificed fluidity of writing style for more of a technical translation in the interests of better accuracy.


Our Sages have denigrated the person who shows himself off [or makes a spectacle of himself], even when it comes to [the worthy task of] serving G-d.


"[R. Yehoshua] says in the Mishna[2]  that a ‘conniving wicked person’ is [one of those individuals] who destroys [the moral and religious fabric] of the world.

How do we define such a [‘conniving wicked person’]?

[Rav Sheshet explains that the ‘conniving wicked person’] is one who persuades others with his ways [convincing them to mimic his seemingly righteous behaviour, yet in reality, he is a religious hypocrite].

And Rashi explains [that the ‘conniving wicked person’] is one who tells others to do like he does and to follow his [stricter] ways and yet [this ‘leader’s’] only motivation is to show off to others just how ‘pious’ he is. His outside piety does not match his internal deceit - and through [showing such religious ‘leadership’] he hides his own shortcomings [from his followers]."

"And how did Rashi know that [the individual referenced here] was only ‘pious on the outside in order to hide his internal deceit’?
Perhaps this individual was indeed genuinely concerned with teaching others how to serve G-d?
[Rashi knew that this individual was being deceitful because the implication is that he was over-exhibiting his religiosity] and it is written that ‘One must walk modestly with Hashem.'”[3]

"The Talmud continues to list seven examples of such bogus piety:

[Two examples follow:]

The self-flagellating righteous who injures his feet – which Rashi explains as the person who walks in [fake] humility to the extent that he drags his feet upon the ground without lifting up his feet [causing them to get injured].

And the bloodletting righteous - who closes his eyes so as not to see women and in the process can’t see where he is going, and bangs his head against walls till blood is drawn. (See Addendum at the conclusion of this article for a modern take on this Gemara.)

These are [just two] examples of [fake and exaggerated piety] which corrode the [religious fabric of] the world."


We must note the words of Rambam[4]:

“...these deplorable people add [extra practices] to what they are [already] obligated to observe and over exaggerate their external [appearances and behaviour] in order to deceive the minds of ordinary people...and by so doing they make the Torah appear as disgusting.”

"What Rambam is saying is that when a person adds to his religious obligations and does so in an exaggerated manner, other people [who observe such behavioural patterns] will find it a source of comedy [and bemusement] as they are not used to such performances – and they will come to blame the ‘Torah’ [for creating such people]." See KOTZK BLOG 57.

For similar reasons, it is forbidden to bow more than necessary at [the beginning of] the ‘Modim’ prayer [where a measured bow is prescribed].[5]


Another explanation is offered by the Meiri[6]:

“The matter of ‘the foolishly pious’ is where one is overly pious, to the extent that his ‘righteousness’ actually causes damage either to himself or to others, such as in a case where one fasts continuously etc.”


One of the ways to identify an individual who has studied Torah for its own sake [and not for an ulterior motive] is to see if he is ‘modest and patient and forgiving of infringes against his ego’[7]

The Maharal wrote on this[8]: “Modesty is the hallmark of Torah. [Modesty] stems from the higher [spiritual] realms which are hidden and modest. For this reason, one who learns Torah for its own sake is [of necessity, also] hidden and modest in all of his ways. He is not a [religious] exhibitionist.”


R. Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover (1650-1712), author of Kav haYashar[9] [or The Good Measure, a work which uplifted the spirits of the Jews after the Chmelnitzki Massacres or 1648] writes:

[Note: Some editions of Kav haYashar had censored and intentionally omitted this particular section.]

“An individual must be careful - even if he knows how to spiritually focus on the ‘Kabbalisic kavanot (concentrations)’ during his prayers – not to pray at length during the communal prayers. This would be an issur gammur – an absolute prohibition! He should only pray tefilato k’peshuto, a simple [and quick] prayer [when in the synagogue during communal prayers, so as not to stand out and draw attention to himself].

This has always been a tradition with me:

One who draws out his prayers longer than it takes the community to recite them, it goes without saying that he is doing so in order draw attention to himself, and of necessity his prayer will therefore not be considered.

I also saw [my father] the Gaon R. Aharon Shmuel Kaidanover [known as Maharshak] and other rabbis who would pray without drawing their prayers out at all.
And they would disapprove of the other rabbis who would draw their prayers out more than necessary.


As the Rivash [R. Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (1326–1408)] wrote in his Responsa[10] (see also Mishna Berura 98:1): ‘[During communal prayers] one must only concentrate on the simple meaning of the words and no more.


A [Talmudic] support for this may be found in R. Akiva[11]:
When he used to pray with the community, he would start and conclude at the same time as them. This, however, was not the case when he would pray privately because we know that he [would get so lost in his prayers that] he would start in one place [in his home] and end in another.


According to the Pele Yoetz [or ‘Wondrous advisor’ published in 1824 by R. Eliezer Papo]:

It is forbidden to raise one’s voice or to cry during Prayers and the Reading of the Torah as it would be considered to be arrogant, and this also applies to the Shemona Esrei.”


Furthermore, the Chida [R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806)] also rejected [such open displays of religiosity].

He writes:

“[During prayers] one should not cry out in a loud voice as it is not appropriate [behaviour, conducive] to the fear of Heaven, nor is it respectful of a synagogue.

He continues:

Nor should one cry out while answering to the Kedusha, because such yelling is [actually] a sign of [both] little respect and modesty. It [also] disturbs others from concentrating.


It would not be considered appropriate for a person to turn himself into such a [‘pious’] Chassid in front of the community, so that he falls on his face before them and turns himself into the main character of the prayer [service]... as there is no character attribute greater than modesty and nothing more offensive than a [self-made spiritual] authority.”


"[This spiritually exaggerated behaviour] has another downside in that it causes week minded people to ridicule that person [and the Judaism he represents]...and (according to Mesilat Yesharim)[12] they will be held accountable [for their mockery – together with] the ‘Chasid’ who caused the stumbling-block [in the first place].

[The reason why the spiritually overstated person is held accountable for people ridiculing his behaviour] is because had it been a clear Din [or Halacha that caused people to ridicule him] he would have had to do it regardless of their mockery [and he would not have been held accountable]. However, this is not the case where the action was one of ‘Chassidut’ [or a non-Halachic practice, where he would be held accountable for the ridicule he caused] because the public spectacle [which he created] in front of everyone was not a Halachic requirement but rather something extraneous."


What strikes one from these sources is that they paint a different picture from many of the common practices we are familiar with. People do shout out, sometimes even wail, and they do delay their prayers long after the regular communal davening. In some circles, this is even encouraged and those who do so are considered worthy.

Yet the Kav haYashar regards it as an issur gammur - an absolute prohibition – to draw out one’s prayers during public davening!

Instead, even the prayers of the genuine righteous, are to be tefilato k’peshuto - simple and at the same pace as the community - so as not to focus attention on any particular individual, turning him into the rosh le’tefilatam[13] or the ‘main attraction' of the prayers.

And this section was censored out of some editions!

It must be remembered that the Kav haYashar became one of the most popular books in the Jewish world after it was first published in 1705. It was published and distributed throughout almost all of the countries in which Jews had lived at the time.

During the first hundred years after publication, it was republished at least thirty times and to date, there have been over eighty editions, including seven in Yiddish and three in Ladino.

The question one has to ask is: What agenda drove some to feel that such an influential and inspirational work should not reference this notion of ‘spiritual modesty’?



A modern reconstruction of the Rashi regarding the one "who closes his eyes so as not to see women and in the process can’t see where he is going, and bangs his head against walls till blood is drawn".
These are amongst those who destroy the [religious fabric] of the world.


"The planned takeoff time: Six in the evening. Everyone boards, sits down, waits. Then the commotion starts. Four Haredim who boarded the flight refuse to sit next to women… 
(O)ne of the Haredi men, "particularly zealot and ascetic, boarded the plane with his eyes shut tight, led by the hand by his friend, and remained that way throughout the entire flight."

 The Haredim were unwilling to speak with—or look at—the female flight attendants. All of the men on the flight crew, apart from the captain, were now focused solely on this, instead of preparing for takeoff and serving the passengers…
 And then a prolonged diplomatic process began of moving female passengers from their seats to clear a row of seats for the four Haredim.

"After a lot of twists and turns, shouting and maneuvering, two women (one American around 70 years old and the other a young Israeli woman) agreed—because of time constraints among other things—to switch seats, and the crisis was resolved."

At the end of the ordeal, "the flight crew, which ran up and down the aisles for over an hour, appeared exhausted even before takeoff, though I assume they're used to such scenes."

He also noted that "for there to be no doubt: The women were not upgraded to better seats, only moved to different seats in economy. Not that it's relevant to the principle of the matter, of course."

According to the passenger, other religious Jews aboard the plane 'expressed surprise and disgust at the Haredim's behavior.'"

For more see:
And see:


  • R. Yosef Dov halevi Soloveitchik said:

"The religious experience is not the primary gesture. It is only secondary. The point of departure must never be the internal subjective experience, no matter how redemptive it is, no matter how colorful it is, no matter how therapeutic it is, no matter how substantial its impact upon the total personality of man…
We can never determine what is a religious experience in contradistinction to a hedonic mundane experience. We know of many hedonic emotions which are provided with enormous power, which are hypnotic, and, at first glance, redemptive…"

  • R. Avrohom Gordimer writes: 

"Every individual experiences and communes with Hashem in a different manner than his fellow; avodas Hashem is principally private and personal. One’s personal chumros and minhagim should thus be private, reflective of his unique relationship with Hashem. By keeping one’s chumros and minhagim private, his personal connection with Hashem remains intimate and unique....
One’s public comportment must embody Kiddush Hashem and dignity. Not drawing attention and not being too loud, but being humble, pleasant and dignified mark the way of the Jew in the company of others. Being distinctively Jewish is praiseworthy, but the private, inward posture of the Jew’s spiritual identity governs his public comportment..."

[1] Otzarot haMussar, Chelek Bet, by R. Moshe Zuriel; p. 846.
[2] Sotah 20a.
[3] Micha 6:8.
[4] Commentary on the Mishna, Sotah, ch. 3, Mishna 3.
[5] Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah, ch 9, Halacha 4. See Kesef Mishna commentary for more.
[6] Sotah 21a.
[7] Avot, 6.
[8] P. 285.
[9] Ch, 100.
[10] Siman 157.
[11] Berachot 31a.
[12] The Mesilat Yesharim or Path of the Just was written by R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-17460
 [13] To borrow the expression from the Meiri.