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.

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