Sunday 9 February 2020


King James I of Aragon intervenes on behalf of the Kabbalists to unseat the Maimonidean Rationalists.



The intellectual and spiritual rationalism[1] of Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204) sparked a series of intense religious confrontations, known as the Maimonidean Controversies. It is widely held that the emergence of Kabbalah in the years following Rambam’s passing was a direct reaction to his extreme rationalism. This renewed interest in mysticism culminated in the publishing of the Zohar in around 1280.

[For more on the intensity of these Maimonidean Controversies, see Part I, Part II and Part III.]

In this article, we are going to show how the battle between the mystics and the rationalists may have resulted in a subtle change in the text of the Siddur (Prayer Book).

We will also take a fascinating inside look into the oftentimes ruthless politics behind the piety of 13th-century Spain.

I have drawn extensively from Professor (Emeritus) Bernard Septimus[2], a specialist in Jewish History and Sephardic Civilization, at Harvard University.


Around 1240, the Barcelona Jewish community found itself in the midst of three historic conflicts:

One was political; an internal Jewish struggle for communal power. 

The other two were theological; Rambam’s rationalism and philosophical approach to Judaism was considered dangerous and the rising mystics were attempting to displace it.

And, thirdly, this emerging interest in Kabbalah was hotly debated for its legitimacy and authenticity.


Jewish Barcelona was in the hands of the followers of Mainonidean rationalism, known as the Nesi'in (lit.  princes). But this did not last for long.

A political struggle ensued between the Jewish leadership of Barcelona resulting in a revolt against the former Nesi’im who had enmeshed themselves in positions of aristocratic power - and the rabbinical scholarly elite, which included figures like Nachmanides (Ramban) and R. Yonah Gerondi, who as Septimus puts it; “thought power [was] the prerogative of pious scholars.”

The political establishment was comprised of the aristocratic Nesi’im, who were followers of Rambam’s rationalism and philosophy. They condemned the emerging Kabbalistic thought which was becoming popular under the influence of Nachmanides. One of the Nesi’im’s early leaders was Sheshet Benveniste whose fiery defence of Rambam portrayed a “fierce rationalistic spirituality” so typical of the followers of Maimonides.

The rebels, on the other hand, who sought to unseat the Nesi’im, were illustrious scholars like Nachmanides, R. Yonah Gerondi and R. Shmuel haSardi[3], and they were just as steadfast in their mystical agenda. They were led by a mystical and somewhat elusive poet, R. Isaac Castellón.

It is this mystical poet and rebel leader, R. Isaac Castellón that we are going to turn our attention to.


The mystics’ rebellion against the rationalist establishment was bitter with both sides pulling no punches.

Septimus explains that it is most likely that R. Isaac Castellón is the subject of a letter[4] written by the rationalists condemning the mystical rebels and their leader who is described as “a faithless teacher who worships a weird mixture of angels and idols.

This is a clear reference to the emerging Kabbalists who were regarded as following a type of polytheism because of their system of Sefirot (spheres or energies) which the rationalists considered to contradict the unity and Oneness of G-d. 

R. Isaac Castellón seems to be this ‘faithless’ rebel leader.

The same letter goes on to make some very serious accusations against the Jewish lineage of some of the other mystical leaders like R. Yonah Gerondi and even the Nachmanides himself (the two were cousins). It also seems that R. Isaac Castellón too, was also included in the category of those of suspected impure lineage.


The dispute became so vitriolic that King James I of Aragon (not to be confused with the later King James of England) decided to intervene. 

However, he took the side of the Kabbbalists.

In 1241, the king issued a document calling for the “good men” (i.e., the mystics) of Barcelona to fine or expel those who slandered them (i.e., the rationalist Nesi’im). This started a process whereby eventually the Maimonidean rationalists were unseated from their positions of power which now became the prerogative of the Kabbalists. The Kabbalists now controlled Jewish Barcelona.

As Septimus puts it:

“This document marks the defeat of the nesi’im, and the end of their regime.”

Symbolically the King’s document of 1241 - thirty-seven years after Rambam’s passing - came to represent the beginning of the end for the Maimonidean rationalists who now had to move over and make way for the nascent Kabbalists, whose ideas were to dominate the future of Judaism and largely become it’s mainstream.


Interestingly, two other documents survive[5] which indicate that Nachmanides himself had a role in informing that fateful decision of the King of Aragon.

Also, in these documents, the mystical poet R. Isaac Castellón emerges as one of the heroes of the rebellion which brought down the authority of the Maimonidean rationalists.

As an example of how bitter and fierce the controversy was, Nachmanides writes with equal but opposing vitriol that his aim is to:

“...refute the Epicurean [the hedonists – which is how he referred to the Maimonidean rationalists][6] and shut the mouths of the reprobates [morally corrupt][7] who project their own blemishes onto others, casting blemish upon the holy...

[For] there has now risen up a brood of sinful men...soiled with every transgression in the Torah, the lightest of which is adultery and lying with menstruant women.

Their prince (nasi) sullies himself with all these abominations. Father and son resort to the same girl with intent to profane.

[They are] utter informers [who deserve] to be lowered into a pit, who slandered noble families in the kingdom of Barcelona and Gerona...”

The document mentions the names of R. Yonah Gerondi and Nachmaindes[8] but, of interest to our discussion is the inclusion of the name R. Isaac Castellón:

“And second to them was the saint (Hasid – a title often referring to Kabbalists)...and poet, R. Isaac [of] Castellón...

Because these masters were most jealous for God, blessed be He, [it transpired][9] that violent, sinful men were called by the title ‘prince’ (nasi), and reduced them in accordance with the law, [(i.e.), they were slandered]...”


Things begin to take an interesting turn because some time after this letter, R. Isaac Castellón’s name appears in a set of unpublished Responsa (Halachic Questions and Answers or She’eilot uTeshuvot) literature.

Questions about the purity of lineage of R. Isaac Castellón began to resurface seventy-five years after the rebellion and Halachic clarity was sought to finally put this matter to rest. 

The Responsa texts indicate that descendants of the Castellón family married into influential families like that of R. Shlomo ibn Aderet (Rashba, 1235-1310). This obviously mitigated in favour of the purity of the Castellón Jewish lineage.

But, the Responsa also show that some families may have intentionally not intermarried with the Castellón descendants to avoid taking any chances with the purity of their lineage.[10]

The Responsa texts then reveal that as many as twenty-one Catalan (Spanish) rabbis wrote to the rabbis of Northern France and Provence (Southern France) and refuted the allegations of impure lineage which had been levelled against R. Isaac Castellón and R. Yonah Gerondi and claimed it was part of the malicious propaganda of earlier rationalists.


Amazingly, for a second time, the King[11] of Aragon intervenes on behalf of mystics. This time, the royal court demanded that the matter of purity of lineage of the Castellón’s descendants be resolved for once and for all.

Septimus writes:

“The king’s decree demanded responses from the entire elite of the Catalan halakhic establishment, attention well beyond what the question would ordinarily have received. By having the full weight of current authority behind them, the family, no doubt, hoped for a decisive vindication...

The king’s order is forceful: it even sets deadlines before which the specified scholars must present their written decisions. I wonder how welcome this intrusion was: the respondents, though asked, as experts, to rule on the basis of Jewish law, cannot have been unaware of the king’s preferred answer...

Royal demand for a halakhic ruling was not unprecedented and is a phenomenon that deserves further exploration.”

All in all, one can only surmise whether the history of the Kabbalist rebellion against the Maimonidean rationalist establishment in Barcelona, would have turned out any different without the intervention of the Spanish royals.


R. Isaac Castellón’s poems are informative as they show how the emergence of a new Kabbalistic style and way of thinking was beginning to embed itself within the tradition.

His poems were deep and meaningful.

This is how Septimus explains one particular poem:

“The opening (‘My mind knows that it knows not...’) appropriates the language of Neoplatonic ‘negative theology.’

The entire first stanza is reminiscent of Bahya ibn Paquda’s remark that ‘the ultimate knowledge of [God] is your acknowledgment and certainty that you are ignorant of His true essence,’ which he links to this prayer: ‘My Lord, where do I find You? But where do I not find You? You are veiled, unseen, yet You pervade All.” 

The stanza also echoes Halevi’s lines: ‘Lord, where do I find You ,Your place is high and hidden. But where do I not find You, Your Glory fills the universe.’

It thus proclaims a twofold paradox: Awareness of one’s ignorance is the true knowledge of God, Who is at once transcendent and immanent.”


Judaism has long had a mystical tradition. However it underwent different stages in its development. At around this period, the mystical tradition was transforming from the older Heichalot and Merkavah literature [see A Window into Pre-Zoharic Mystical Literature] to a new Kabbalah of the Zohar (first published around 1280) which spoke of Sefirot and unifications etc.

Septimus explains:

“Castellón shows himself a master of the Andalusian [southern Spanish][12] tradition, who is adjusting (his opponents might have said subverting) its spiritual orientation. The shift is barely perceptible because he skillfully uses traditional techniques and themes to project a sense of literary and spiritual continuity.”


One of R. Isaac Castellón’s liturgical poems (piyitim) is known as an Ahavah - after Ahavah Rabbah which is the prayer recited just before the morning Shema.

The prayer ends with the blessing ‘habocher be’amo Yisrael be’ahavah’ (that G-d chooses Israel out of love).

Septimus writes:

“[But] Castellón’s ahavah is unusual: it concludes not with the love between God and Israel that gives the genre its name, but with God’s unity. It transitions, in other words, not to [be’ahavah] 
but to [le’yachedecha][13]
and the first verse of the Shema itself. This anomaly, we shall see, is significant.”

In other words, we suddenly have an insertion of the word le’yachedecha (to unify You). The reason why this is significant is because one of the allegations the rationalists levelled against the Kabbalists was that the emergent system of Sefirot (spheres) was a form of polytheism where G-d is no longer a monotheistic G-d but rather a composite of various energies.[14]

In R. Isaac Castellón’s poem, these Sefirot are referred to a Sodecha, or Your secrets.

According to Septimus:

“This plurality was what rendered kabbalists vulnerable to the charge of polytheism, a charge that, we have seen, was prominent in the polemic against the Barcelona rebels.”

To counter this charge, it was deemed to be very important to point out that all these Sefirot and spiritual energies and realms were able to unite in a Oneness.

The worshipper would reach a state where:

“He causes his thought to ascend through mystical kavvanah, attaching it to the divine and bringing the sefirot into harmonious balance.”

Hence the importance of the insertion of the word le’yachedecha (to unify You), particularly just before the Shema where G-d’s Oneness is proclaimed.

“The liturgical framing of the Shema with a kabbalistic conception of God’s unity, even if subtly stated, is no small thing; for it constitutes a communal embrace of kabbalistic theology.”


This prayer had become part of the Spanish prayer service in some places in Catalan.

Septimus puts it most poignantly:

“All this may seem quintessentially apolitical; but it was not, in fact, irrelevant to the rebellion in which [R. Isaac][15]the Castellón participated: the final stanza, after all, rejects a charge hurled at the rebel camp.

The poem has a well-defined liturgical function: to augment the berakhah before the Shema in its synagogue recitation.

Any poet who proposes a thematically charged piyyut for public prayer is engaged in a political act. All the more so if it intervenes on an issue that has already entered political discourse...

Public recitation in its pristine version would have signaled a decisive rejection of the old order of the nesi’im.”

The insertion of le’yechedecah was clearly a huge issue because some later versions of the prayer, apparently from 15th-century southern Italy (in a Spanish hand), expunged that reference.

Another version, this time found in a Machzor (Holiday prayer book) also in a Spanish hand and from the same time similarly ‘dekabbalizers’ the text.


I did some research and found (as far as I can tell) that all versions (nuscha’ot) of this prayer Ahavah Rabbah as they occur in our common siddurim today, conclude with le’yachedecha – but with one exception.

Significantly, it is the prayer book used by the rationalist Yemenites who follow the Maimonidean traditions. Their prayer nusach or liturgy is known as Baladi.

In this version, there is no reference to le’yachedecha as, in their Maimonidean system, they had no need to reconcile a notion of plurality with Oneness.

Ashkenazi Nusach with le'yachedecha highlighted.

Baladi Nusach, following Maimonides with no mention of any Unifications.

[1] It is interesting to see that Bernard Septimus seems to have coined the phrase ‘spiritual rationalism of Maimonides’ to counter the popular notion that only the mystical approach is spiritual.
[2]  Bernard Septimus, Isaac de Castellón: Poet, Kabbalist, Communal Combatant.
[3] Samuel haSardi wrote the Sefer haTerumot which heavily influenced large parts of R. Yaakov ben Asher’s (also known as the Baal haTurim) Tur Choshen Mishpat, and, through it, subsequent Jewish civil law. [For more on the mystics attempts (and success) at controlling future Halacha see Displacing Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah.]
[4] Klein, Jews, Christian Society, and Royal Power, 121ff.
[5] Septimus, “Piety and Power,” 204.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Parenthesis mine.
[8] The letters was recorded by an unknown editor apparently quite soon after the events so it is unclear (to me at least) whether Nachmanides was writing about himself or if this was the work of the editor.
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] See Bodleian, MS Reggio32, 247a, 252b, 259b.
[11] This would not have been the same King James I of Aragon as he died in 1276.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Parentheses mine.
[14] The Kabbalists would explain that there is a difference ‘before’ and ‘after’ the tzimtzum (contractions).
[15] Parenthesis mine.


  1. Did you see the siddur Rav Saadia Gaon on page 14? He writes also וליחדך.

  2. Go to the Friedberg Genizah Project. Search for הבוחר בעמו ישראל. You get 26 results. Now search for וליחדך and you get 22 results. Means that out of 26 available transcriptions 22 have וליחדך. Here you go:

    Cambridge, CUL: T-S 6H2.8 ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה. אמן. וליחדך בנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון וקרבתנו מלכנו להודות לך ולאהבה את שמך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S 8H9.5 ולרוממך ולאהבה את שמך ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה. וליחדך ולשון וקרבתנו לשמך להודות לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S 8H9.16 ולאהבה את שמך שמע ישראל יקוק אלוהינו יקוק אחד: =ברוך שם כבוד וליחדך (בי) =בנו= בחרנו מכל עם ולשון וקירבתנו לשמך הגדול להודות לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S 10H1.2 ב' א' ייי הבוחר בעמו ישראל אמן. שמע ישראל ייי אלינו ייי אחד: וליחדך כי בנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון וקרבתנו לשמך הגדול באהבה להודות לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S NS 150.238 ול[. ]וממך ולאהבה את שמך ברוך א[. ]ה ייי ה{ ו} בחר בעמו וליחדך מכל עם ולישון וקרבתנו לשמך {להודו} הגדול באהבה להודות לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S NS 195.16 ולאהבה וליראה את שמך בא'י הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה. שמע ישראל וליחדך V ^ ^ מכל עם ולשון וקרבתנו מלכנו לשמך הגדול באהבה להודות לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S NS 272.30 ב'ר' א'ת' ייי הבוחר בעמו ישראל אמן שמע ישראל ייי אלהינו ייי וליחדך סלה ועד [ ]בנו בחרתה מכל עם ולשון וקירבתנו לשמך להודות לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S AS 3.93 ולאה[. ...] את שמך ב'א'י' הבוחר בעמו ישר[. .] וליחדך וקרבתנו מלכנו [ל]ש[מ. ......ב]אהבה להודות לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S AS 103.17 ולרוממך ול[. .]בה את שמך ברוך אתה ייי[ ]ר בעמו ישראל באהבה וליחדך ועד[ [ ]בחרתה מכל עם ולשון וק[ [ ]לכנו לשמך גדול להודות[ לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S AS 104.26 ולאה[ב. .] את שמך ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בע[מ]ו ישראל באהבה [. .] וליחדך כי בנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון וקרבת[נ]ו לשמך הגדול לה[ו. .] לך
    Cambridge, CUL: T-S AS 105.129 ולרוממך ולאהבה את שמך ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה וליחדך וקירבתנו לשמך [הגדול ו]הקדוש [בא]הבה להודות לך
    London, BL: OR 10841.38 (Alt: GASTER 1323.38) ולאהבה את שמך : ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו <( יש) > ישראל : אמן וליחדך סלה כי בנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון <( וקר) > וקרבתנו לשמך להודות לך
    New York, JTS: ENA 1968.24 ולרוממך ולאהבה [. ..............] הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהב[ה] [. וליחדך [. .ח]רת מכל עם ולשון וקרבת[. ...............] [ל]ך
    New York, JTS: ENA 2168.29 ולרממך ולאהבה את שמך ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהב אמן\\ וליחדך לעד כי בנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון וקרבתנו לשמך הגדול להודות לך
    New York, JTS: ENA 2173.2 ולרממך ולאהבה את שמך ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה אמן וליחדך לך
    New York, JTS: ENA 2174.18 ולרוממך (..) ולאהבה את שמך באמת. ב'א' יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל וליחדך עם ולשון וקירבתנו לשמך הגדול הקדוש באהבה ובאמת להודות לך
    New York, JTS: ENA 2644b.7 . וליראה ולאהבה את שמך . ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל וליחדך בחרת מכל עם ולשון. וקרבתנו מלכנו לשמך הגדול באהבה להודות לך
    New York, JTS: ENA 2947.9 ולאהבה את שמך ברוך אתה יי הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה: שמע ישראל וליחדך בחרת מכל עם ולשון וקרבתנו לשמך הגדול* =והקדוש= להודות לך

  3. Check also the מפעל משנה תורה-Edition Volume 1 page 446, Rambam has וליחדך. Check the Rav Kapach Edition on page 715 of ספר אהבה he has also וליחדך.

    1. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of siddurim use 'le'yachedecha' (as I mentioned). I found one exception (as I mentioned) that stood out by its omission of the word. There must have been a reason for that and the assumption is that it represented a Maimonidean tradition.

      The 'siddur' printed in many additions of Mishneh Torah, known also as Mesorat Moshe, is not unanimously regarded as the authentic version of Rambam's tefillot.

      However, the inclusion in the Kapach edition is telling and noted.

    2. According to Professor Stefan Reif, the version of the ‘Rambam's siddur’ as it appears in the printed versions of Mishneh Torah is not a reliable reference source. This is because although manuscripts exist in the Bodleian Library in Oxford with the text of the first two books of Mishneh Torah signed by Rambam himself - unfortunately, the 19 unsigned folios which follow, include the crucial section containing this 'siddur'. This divests the ‘Rambam’s siddur’ of an unquestionable degree of authenticity.

  4. The תכלאל Siddur has also וּלְיַחֲדָךְ according to this page:

  5. EA thank you for your comment. I once again pressed delete instead of publish. Please post again. I do agree that it's not a universal watertight argument but I still think it holds true for Spain.

    Also the fact that the Baladi version omits 'le'yachedecha' despite its occurrence even in earlier times, indicates that there was some opposition to its use because of Kabbalistic connotations.

    1. I will try to restate it as best I can:
      The use of לייחדך appears in the siddur of Hasidei Ashkenaz prior to the time of Rabbi Castellon. This is most clearly seen in the Rokeach's commentary to the siddur (page 280, R. Herschler Edition). The Rokeach there states that the לייחדך is to tie the Bracha to the concept of God's unity which is then emphasized in the recital of שמע. This also shows that the inclusion of the term לייחדך is pre-Zohar influence in the Ashkenaz liturgy.
      An additional comment on my previous one: the Ramban (Nahmanades) was a student of Rabbi Yehuda Bar Yakar who was a student of the Rokeach and adopted some of his mystic influences (as evident from his commentary on the siddur), which were passed on to the Ramban himself. So there may be more correlation from Hasidei Ashkenaz and their pre-Zohar traditions than Zohar influences.

    2. I see your point but doesn't the appearance of it in the siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon predates the Hasdei Ashkenaz by centuries? And I am still wondering which Baladi Siddur you are using.

    3. Thanks Mendel.

      Chasidei Ashkenaz are officially said to have flourished between the 12th and 13th centuries and Rav Saadia was niftar in 942, so you are correct that about 150 years separated between the two.

      However one must bear in mind that:

      1) Chasidei Ashkenaz revived the earlier Heichalot and Merkavah mysticism.

      2)Chasidei Ashkenaz have roots going back to the Merkavah mystic Abu Aharon of the Gaonic period around 870.

      And because history is a process and not an event, perhaps it is reasonable to say that these ideas were floating around in mystical circles and R. Castellón too may have revived these concepts and used them expediently.

      I don't think that anyone says that R. Castellón invented the idea but it seems that he certainly made it part of local Spanish liturgy after 1241.

      This is borne out by the later Spanish versions of the siddur purposely omitting that reference in at least two instances.

    4. Mendel,

      I will note that the Tichlal siddur (Baladi Yemenite) I have published by Torath Avoth in Eretz Yisrael includes the word לייחדך. The ending of the blessing is: "כי בנו בחרת מכל עם ולשון וקרבתנו לשמך הגדול להודות לך וליחדך ולרוממך ולאהבה את שמך. בא"י הבוחר וכו'.

      An additional tidbit I was able to look up, the recently published Sidur Catalonia, based off of handwritten manuscripts also recites לייחדך. However it is likely that these manuscripts are from after the time period being discussed, or changes to the nusach were made after this time period - as handwritten manuscripts were often edited over time - as evident for example by Machzor Worms.

  6. Check also the מפעל משנה תורה-Edition Volume 1 page 446, Rambam has וליחדך. Check the Rav Kapach Edition on page 715 of ספר אהבה he has also וליחדך.

    Check the תכלאל Siddur. It has also וּלְיַחֲדָךְ according to this page:

  7. I'm curious. Did the King get involved on his own or was he asked to intervene?

  8. That is an interesting question. I'm not sure what the answer is but I suspect the latter. It has occurred before on the stage of Jewish history: There is research to suggest that at the time of the Babylonian Talmud, the Babylonian rabbis agreed not to rise in revolt against the Babylonians (as their brethren had in Eretz Yisrael, against the Romans) provided the Babylonian authorities help them in authorising the Babylonian Talmud over the Jerusalem Talmud. This was around the time that Chanuka became a Festival of 'Lights' rather than a celebration of a victory in battle; and the 'sword' became 'fierce' (but peaceful) words of Torah debate. Jews became passive and deliberately demilitarised. This strategy allowed them to remain relatively safely in Babylonia for about a thousand years.

    1. Thank you for your response, Rabbi Michal. I'm puzzled because there seem to have been multiple major instances of Jews involving Christian authorities to "resolve" their own disputes. Yet, we have harsh warning against Mesirah. How would one reconcile this?

    2. Again, I have no answer. Unfortunately, reality, agenda, fear and perhaps the belief that one is exempt from "informing" because the benefit outweighs the prohibition - all seem to play their part. As we say in Tehillim (119:126), "It's time to act for G-d." And, ironically, the result sometimes is an infringement on the very Torah we are trying to preserve.

    3. May our decisions be better, or least less harmful.