Sunday 25 August 2019



In this article, we will analyse two very different approaches to the concept of prayer and the notion of influencing the Infinite One. 

The first, which is the popular approach, emphasizes much engagement in prayer and highlights the effectiveness of man’s ability to influence G-d. 

The second approach which is Rambam’s view, will come as a surprise to many as it counter-intuitively negates much of the ‘default setting’ of the typical religious personality.


We hear so much about how we can all engage in a personal relationship with G-d, and talk to Him in abundance about anything and the more often we do so the better. There is even a Psalm for everything.

Here are some sources which convey this idea:                                                                                                      
R. Nachman of Breslov writes that Hitbodedut, which is private, personal and informal prayer in any language one understands, is “the highest asset and greater than everything [else].”

Private prayer should be performed:   

 “...using words that evoke favor, placate and conciliate...

Everything that is in his heart he should express and tell to God...

[I]t is a practice that is accessible to all people, from the least to the greatest...and thereby [he will] come to a high level.[3]

When R. Nachman was ill, he asked his grandson to pray for him. The child asked first to have his grandfather’s pocket watch before he would pray for him. Only after he got what he wanted, did he cry out “Heal my grandfather” and then continued playing with the watch. The other Chassidim laughed at this but R. Nachman rebuked them pointing out that the most powerful prayers are carried out in such ways of absolute childlike simplicity.

R. Nachman continues:

“It is good to turn Torah into prayer. That is, when one studies...he should make it into a prayer...This manner of conversation rises to a very high place...which results in very great delight on high.

R. Nachman's student, R. Natan, composed 210 private prayers in a collection entitled Likutey Tefilot,  and readers are encouraged to use these inspirational texts as springboards for their personal prayers, and to: "express our personal needs and spiritual yearnings, whether at home, in the synagogue, in the office, in a quiet park or out in the countryside, etc."

Many have the practice today, with the ever-increasing popularity of the Challah Bake, to use the baking experience as an auspicious time to pray for healing, a marriage partner, happy and healthy children and so on, as the spiritual gates are considered to be open at that time. The baking of Challah becomes a conduit for all blessing to the home and different prayers are said with the addition of each of the seven ingredients; with the eighth ingredient - the soul of the baker - being the most effective to facilitate the blessing.

One Challah baking site suggests: 

“When kneading the challah dough with one’s hands, one can mention the names of each person in their family, sending personal prayers to G-d. It is also an opportune time to pray for others who are in need of blessings. From pouring the ingredients through braiding the dough, prayer can be whispered through each step, and the power of these prayers is strong and far-reaching”.


The following extract from Rambam’s Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim), screams deafeningly against all the above.

Rambam writes about the human condition in which man often considers it necessary to define and praise the Infinite One with, ironically, many finite descriptions and characterizations – such as G-d being Great, Kind, Loving etc.

However, the more one thinks one knows and understands G-d, the more one shows how little one understands the concept and nature of the Infinite, because an Infinite Essence cannot be described nor comprehended.
Thus, essentially, the deepest way to praise G-d is not even through prayer, but rather through silence.

[NOTE: Of course, Rambam is not negating the Halachic injunction to 'daven' (pray from a siddur) as he believes it is a Torah obligation to do so - as opposed to (ironically the mystical) Ramban, who says daily prayers are of rabbinic origin, and it is only a Torah obligation to pray during times of trouble.]


Rambam bases himself on a Talmudic source[4] which refers to an incident where someone led the prayer service before R. Chanina. This individual began praying with much flamboyant hyperbole and overstatement describing G-d with numerous and various adjectives such as:

“G-d the Great, the Mighty, the Awesome, the Powerful, the Indomitable, the Awe-Inspiring, the Strong, the Fearless, the Steadfast and the Honored...”

R. Chanina waits for him to finish and then asks the worshiper if he has concluded all his praises. Establishing that the prayer session is now over, he asks him why he went to such an exaggerated extent to praise G-d?

Before the worshipper can respond, R. Chanina says that he personally limits himself to just three adjectives to describe G-d – and he uses these expressions almost begrudgingly and only because he has to. This is because they were used by Moshe in the Torah, and thereafter, incorporated into the official (Shmonei Esrei) prayer by Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly.

Rashi explains that these three adjectives are “Gadol, Gibor and Norah’ (Great, Mighty and Awesome):

R. Chanina then makes the point that overstating one’s prayers is comparable to a king who has thousands of golden coins yet only gets praised for a few specific silver ones. The lesson being that man should not think that he appeases G-d even with very great platitudes.


Rambam obviously favoured this Talmudic source because he writes:

“Here ends the dictum of this perfect [rabbinic statement]...[It is perfect because had our prayers not been formulated by the Sages, we] should not have had recourse to them in our prayers.”[5]

In other words, were it not for the fact that our Sages obligated us to pray, we would have been even more minimalist in our prayers.

This ‘perfect and well-known’ statement of R. Chanina is Rambam’s favourite rabbinic statement, and he “wishes that all their other statements were like this”:

Rambam lived in a society that was, in his view, unsure where to draw the line between superstition and religion and the populace were dictating spiritual norms and standards to their leadership.

Rambam can’t help but continue:

Thus what we do is not like what is done by the truly ignorant who spoke at great length and spend great efforts on prayers that they composed and on sermons that they complied[6] and through which they, in their opinion, came nearer to God.[7]  

In Rambam’s own words, it is only the ‘truly ignorant’ that ‘spend great effort on prayer’.
By saying that these are not things that “we do”, Rambam is clearly differentiating his (and his followers) approach from that of the masses of the “truly ignorant” – an expression he is not averse to using when referring to the mainstream. [See here.]

“For they do not understand those sublime notions that are too strange for the intellects of the vulgar and accordingly took God...for an object of study for their tongues;

[T]hey predicated attributes of Him and addressed Him in all the terms that they thought permitted and expiated at such length in this way that in their thoughts they made Him move on account of an affection...”

Rambam maintains that the intellectually “vulgar” mainstream is unable to understand that they cannot comprehend the Infinite One, and instead they turn spirituality into “an object of study for their tongues” (but not their minds[8]). Thus they overstate their prayers and create and expound on a vast construct of ‘spiritual techniques and technicalities’ in an attempt to create a philosophy - “an object of study” - and try, almost, to bribe and manipulate G-d and “make Him move on account of an affection”.

Rambam, therefore, offers an alternative position:

“Accordingly if you are one who has regard for the honor of his Creator, you ought not to listen in any way to these utterances, let alone give expression to them [i.e. to these philosophies and injunctions to extra prayers][9] and still less make up others like them...and ought not go beyond that which has been inserted in the prayers...

[f]or this is sufficient from the point of view of [Halachic][10] necessity;

[I]n fact, as Rabbi Haninah said, it is amply sufficient...

Solomon...has rightly directed us...: For God is in heaven and thou upon the earth; therefore let thy words be few.[11]

Thus Rambam suggests that if one is looking for a more realistic G-dly experience as opposed to a formulated or what he considers to be a contrived spiritual one, then Less is More. When it comes to prayer, one should ‘give expression to them” but “not go beyond that which has been inserted in the prayers” and certainly not “make up others like them”.


Rambam even extends his objection to quoting verses of praise from the Prophets!

“They did this especially when they found the text of a prophet’s speech regarding these terms. Thereupon they had full license to bring forward texts that ought to be interpreted, and to take them according to their external meaning, to derive from them inferences and secondary conclusions...

This kind of license is frequently taken by poets and preachers or such as think that what they speak is poetry, so that the utterances of some of them constitute an absolute denial of faith, while other utterances contain such rubbish and such perverse imaginings as to make men laugh when they hear them...and to make them weep when they consider that these utterances are applied to God.

In Rambam’s system, when we must pray it should be minimalist and not exaggerated beyond that which is prescribed because essentially the deepest way to communicate with the Infinite is through silence.


We have looked at two very different if not extreme ways in which the concept of prayer is dealt with.

One system adopts a More is More approach while the other suggests that Less is More.

As this is not a competition, the intention is not to come up with a ‘winner’ but rather to show just how diverse and complex the various approaches to such a fundamental issue actually are.

Investigation into the sources reveals that these paradoxes surface time and time again - we truly are One Nation with Multiple Systems.

[1] A play on "One country, two systems" which refers to the constitutional principle formulated by Deng Xiaoping, the Paramount Leader of the People's Republic of China, for the reunification of China during the early 1980s.
[2] A ‘maximalist’ is also defined as ‘one who favors a radical and immediate approach to the achievement of a set of goals or the completion of a program.’
[3] Likutei Moharan II #25.
[4] Berachot 33b.
[5] Moreh Nevuchim 1:59.
[6] This is most likely a reference to ‘inspirational’ spiritual writings.
[7] Translation is from the Pines edition.
[8] In other words, they create a spiritual theology that ‘sounds right’ and ‘makes sense’ especially for the spiritual seeker, but in Rambam’s view, has no relevance in ‘reality’ because the ‘bridge’ from finite to Infinite is too sublime to attempt to articulate.
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 5:2.

Sunday 18 August 2019



Writings of Aharon ben Eliyahu, a 14th century Karaite who produced a Karaite version of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. He was known as the 'Karaite Rambam'. 


Maimonides is known as one of the fathers of Jewish law and rationalist philosophy, yet he is also variously depicted as a secret mystic; a convert to Islam [See Could Rambam Have Been Forced to Convert to Islam?];  the Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to himself as a follower of Rambam[1]; the Wissenschaft des Judentums of the Enlightenment Movement held Rambam up as their shining light; and even the Karaites claimed him as one of their own!

In this article, which I have based on the research of Professor Daniel J. Lasker[2], we will explore the Karaite claim that Rambam was a secret Karaite.


The Karaite movement was started in the 8th century in present-day Iraq. Its followers accepted the idea that the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai, but they completely rejected the notion of the Oral Tradition as it manifested through rabbinic Judaism. The Karaites (or Kara’im in Hebrew – from the word kara or mikra meaning ‘Scripture’) based their teachings exclusively on the Written Torah. 

There still are a substantial number of Karaite Jews today, and it appears that at one point in our history, they may have even formed the majority of our nation.

The Karaites often conflicted with the Rabbinites, although in Rambam’s 12th century Egypt, the two communities had close connections.

[For more on the Karaites see here.]


Although the Karaites relied mostly on the literal Torah text, they also had their version of an oral tradition and also had chachamim, halachists and decisors.  One such decisor during the 1400s was Eliyahu Bashyatchi[3] (1420-1490).

Bashyatchi was well-schooled in rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism. His Rabbinite teacher was the Rishon, R. Mordechai Comtino who was also the teacher of the Re’em (R. Eliyahu Mizrachi author of Sefer haMizrachi, a supercommentary on Rashi to the Torah). 

The Re’em became the Chacham Bashi or Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, and both he and his teacher were known for their tolerant attitudes towards Karaites. Such was the unprejudiced milieu in which Bashyatchi found himself.


Bashyatchi wrote that both Rambam as well as Avraham Ibn Ezra (who, in his commentary, openly referenced Karaite sources hundreds of times, see here) were:

“...among the great men of Israel...

Their occasional attacks on the Karaites were for external consumption only, but God knows what was in their hearts.

They revealed their secrets to special individuals, since it is improper to say the truth to everyone, but they told the truth to those to whom it was proper.” [4]

According to Bashyatchi, both Rambam and Ibn Ezra were ‘secret Karaites’!


Bashyatchi goes on to bring what he considers to be proof of Rambam’s general ‘disillusionment’ with the mainstream Rabbinite worldview:

“And thus said the sage Rabbi Moses the son of Rabbi the Guide [of the Perplexed]...concerning one of the dicta [statements] of the Rabbinites [irrelevant to our discussion but relating to brevity in prayer]:

‘Would that all [their] dicta were like it!’

It appears from this that he did not consider every dicta of the Rabbinites to be proper, as this one was.”

This quotation from Rambam, praising one particular Talmudic statement, seemed to indicate to Bashyatchi that Rambam openly preferred this Talmudic statement over most of the others, therefore - despite some negative references by Rambam about the Karaites - Rambam was an anti-Rabbinite and a secret Karaite!

Rambam’s actual words in his Guide of the Perplexed are as follows:

“You also know their famous dictum – would that all [their other][5] dicta were like it.”[6]

One can understand how Bashyatchi was happy to be drawn by Rambam’s reference to one Rabbinite statement (about brevity in prayer) as ‘their famous dictum’ – as if Rambam was distancing himself from ‘them’, the Rabbinites.


According to Bashyatchi, Rambam was too afraid of his coreligionists to openly admit the truth of Karaism - as were the Ashkenazim of Bashyatchi’s own day in the 1400s too afraid to admit to the truth of Karaism either. This was because, in Bashyatchi’s time, the Rabbinite masses were intimidated by the fact that their leaders would:

 “ garlic sauce, make lots of noise about wearing the tallit and tefillin, and wear long coats and decorated Russian hats.”[7]

Bashyatchi seems to imply that the Rabbinite leadership created a societal sub-culture which intimidated their followers into some form of cohesion if not submission.

Accordingly, he alleges that a type of ‘deep state’ existed among the Rabbinite leadership, which prevented the people from recognizing the truth of Karaism.


Daniel Lasker writes that the allegation by Bashyatchi that Rambam was a ‘secret Karaite’, is astonishing, considering that Rambam was known to have made some very strong anti-Karaite statements in his Letter to Yemen (although it is possible that Bashyatchi was unaware of the letter).
Rambam wrote:

“[B]e very careful and keep your eyes open lest any of the heretics [namely, the Karaites], may they be speedily destroyed, catch any of you, since that would be worse for you than apostasy...and know that it is permitted to slay them [the Karaites] in our opinion...”[8]

Evidently, Rambam was actually in favour of the death sentence for Karaites!

It even appears, from Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishna, that death sentences were actually carried out on some of the Karaites in Spain.[9]


Taking into consideration Bashyatchi’s claim, based on the Guide, that Rambam was a ‘secret Karaite’, and the above two Maimonidean sources depicting strong anti-Karaite rhetoric - was Rambam, in the words of Daniel Lasker a critic or a cultural hero of the Karaites?


To answer this question we need to remember that Rambam’s anti-Karaite writings took place relatively early in his career. Rambam was born in 1135. His Letter to Yemen was written around 1172, and his Mishna Commentary was from around 1168. This placed Rambam in his early thirties when these anti-Karaite statements were made.

It does seem, however, that as he got older, he softened his stance against the Karaites.


In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, written around 1180, he seems to regard Karaites (according to the printed texts) and heretics as victims of circumstances beyond their control, as if they were children taken captive by non-Jews and raised without any knowledge of their own heritage.[10]

Similarly, in one of Rambam’s responsa, he writes that as long as Karaites are respectful towards the tradition of Rabbinite sages, we too should be respectful towards them - and we may visit them in their homes, enjoy their wine, bury their dead and perform circumcision on their children even on Shabbat. 

Rabbi Kapach points out in his edition of the Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishna, that in Rambam’s own handwritten correctional notes in the margin, he himself had omitted the earlier reference to the death penalty for Karaites.

Besides Rambam changing his stance against Karaites as he got older, it is also possible that he became more tolerant of them after he had moved to Egypt around 1168 when he completed his Commentary on the Mishna, and saw just how integrated the Karaites were within the Egyptian Jewish community.

[For fragment evidence of interaction and even intermarriage[11] between Rabbinites and Karaites, see The Cairo Geniza.]


According to Daniel Lasker, it is possible that Rambam had never met Karaites before moving to Egypt - and his reference to executing Karaites in Spain (in his Mishna Commentary) may have been because the Spanish Karaite community, although quite vocally anti-Rabbinite, was very small and he may not have had first-hand association with them.[12] 

It is also unclear whether there even were Karaites living in Yemen at all, around the time Rambam sent his famous letter there.


After Rambam had softened towards the Karaites, they correspondingly began to adopt more and more of his teachings into their literature.



The 13th century Karaite halachic author, Aharon ben Yosef haRofeh, began to incorporate Maimonidean thought into Karaite texts.



The next authoritative Karaite who continued to incorporate Maimonides into his teachings, was Aharon ben Eliyahu (who was differentiated from his predecessor Aharon the Elder, by the title Aharon the Younger). He flourished in the 14th century, and was so influenced by Maimonides that he was referred to as the ‘Karaite Maimonides’!

Aharon the Younger composed a work called Eitz Chaim which was a Karaite version of the Guide of the Perplexed.

He, for example, did not ascribe individual Divine Providence to animals but only to humans. This was in keeping with Rambam’s belief that G-d takes care of the various species or groups of animals, vegetation and inanimate matter as a whole but not of the individual within the cluster.
Thus hashgacha peratit (individual Divine Providence) applies only to humans - while hashagcha kelalit (general Divine Providence) would apply to all other creatures and also to inanimate objects.



The next major Karaite halachic decisor was the 15th century Eliyahu Bashyatchi from whom we quoted at the beginning of the article, who claimed Rambam as one of their own and as a ‘secret Karaite’.

Daniel Lasker writes:

 “Taking things one step further, and turning Maimonides into a secret Karaite, was not such a large leap of faith for the Karaites who, in any event, were turning to the ‘Guide [of the Perplexed]’ for both religious and philosophical guidance.”

But amazingly, it was not only to the Guide of the Perplexed that the Karaites were turning, but even to Rambam’s halachic writings like the Mishneh Torah:


Bashyatchi’s influential brother-in-law, Calev Afendopolo adopted the Rabbinite cycle of reading the Torah from Tishrei to Tishrei – thus changing the traditional Karaite custom which used to be from Nisan to Nisan.

In his Patshegen Ketav haDaat, he unexpectedly copies sections of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah verbatim.

Furthermore, Afendopolo’s treatment of the messianic era is also a copy of Rambam’s discussion of this matter in his various works.

The Karaites are now truly beginning to adopt Maimonidean texts.



The Karaite leaders in the centuries that followed continued to heap praises on Rambam, and the 18th century Simcha Yitzchak Lutski wrote:

“All the Torah laws which are written...are all collected by Maimonides...and he explained them at length in his great composition, called Yad haChazakah [or Mishneh Torah][13]. He who wishes to know them should look there.”

Referring to Simcha Yitzchak Lutski, Daniel Lasker makes the point that:

“He often made reference to Maimonides as an authoritative source of knowledge, blurring thereby the boundaries between Karaism and Rabbinism...

No preference is given to the Karaite worthies over the Rabbanite ones...

Lutski’s frequent explicit and implicit citations of Maimonides’ works throughout his own compositions indicate the central role Maimonides played in his thought.” 


Fascinatingly, Simcha Yitzchak Lutski, who died in 1760 – the same year as the Baal Shem Tov passed away – also introduced mysticism and Kabbalah to the Karaites, making him an unusual Karaite Kabbalist.[14]


During the early modern period, there appears to have been a shift away from the somewhat central role Rambam played in earlier Karaite thought. The reason given by Daniel Lasker is astonishing:

“If Maimonideanism was challenged by Karaites in the early modern period, it was because of the growing acceptance of the Kabbalah as an authoritative part of the Jewish tradition, even for Karaites.”

Thus we see that even Karaism was affected by a strong mystical influence in more recent times, to the detriment of the powerful Maimonidean rational, philosophical and even somewhat halachic influence of earlier times.


In an astounding Karaite defence of Kabbalah over Rambam’s ‘rational anti-mysticism’, Simcha Yitzchak Lutski wrote:

“There is no doubt that had Maimonides...seen the Zohar which is the true wisdom of the Torah, received from the early sages of Israel...[who received it] from the prophets...he [Maimonides][15] would certainly have followed it...
Nevertheless, since [the Zohar] had not yet been revealed in his days, and he never saw it...he wrote that which he wrote.”

The Zohar was published about fifty years after Rambam’s passing. [See Mysteries behind the Origins of the Zohar.]

Most ironically, Simcha Yitzchak Lutski, the Karaite, agreed with some Rabbinite scholars who alleged that later in life, Rambam denounced his rationalism in favour of mysticism and became a mystic. [See Mysterious ‘Secret Document’ Attesting that Rambam was a Mystic.]


Simcha Yitzchak Lutski also presented a most derisive denunciation of Maimonidean rationalism in favour of mysticism - unexpected from a Karaite - by his negative reference to Rambam as one who initially went outside of Judaism and “turned to the uncircumcised Greek philosophers...” instead of looking within.

This way the allure of the mystical tradition eventually even made inroads into the Karaite community.

[2] Maimonides and the Karaites: From Critic to Cultural Hero, by Daniel J. Lasker.
[3] Also known as Bashyazi.
[4] Adderet Eliyahu, p. 6a (Odessa 1870).
[5] The translation is by Pines, parenthesis mine.
[6] Guide of the Perplexed 1:59, Pines edition Chicago 1963, p. 140. The nature of the actual Talmudic statement will be dealt with in detail in the next article.
[7] Adderet Eliyahu, p. 3b.
[8] Rambam’s Epistle to Yemen,
[9] Rambam, Commentary on Mishna, Chulin 1:2
[10] MT Hilchot Mamrim, 3:1-3.
[11] Rambam did not, however, encourage intermarriage with Karaites, because while he recognized their marriages, he was suspicious of the legality of their divorces. This created the possibility that a second marriage might create illegitimate children as the new mother may still have been legally married to her first husband.
[12] See Karaism in Twelfth-Century Spain, by Daniel J. Lasker, p. 179-195.
[13] Parenthesis mine.
[14] See Simhah Isaac Lutski, an Eighteenth-Century Karaite Kabbalist, by Daniel J. Lasker.
[15] Parenthesis mine.