Sunday 8 March 2020




Part A.


The great divide between the rationalist followers of Maimonides (1135-1204) and the mystics or Kabbalists, was a watershed moment in Jewish theological history. A watershed, besides meaning a ‘turning point’ is also defined as ‘an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas.[1]

One cannot even begin to fathom the differences in modern religious Hashkafa or worldview without first understanding the Anti-Maimonidean Controversies of the 13th and 14th-centuries. This was the period when the mystics attempted by all means at their disposal to ban and malign Maimonidean spiritual rationalism, which they referred to as ‘philosophy’. History attests to the fact that the mystics won. [See The ‘Lost Religion’ of Maimonides.]

Although the Zohar was only published in around 1280, the new Kabbalists called themselves ‘traditionalists’, thus creating the impression that they were more firmly rooted in Judaism than the rationalists.

One should never allow comfortable hindsight to underplay the depths of this controversy as it tore at the core of Jewish spiritual identity.

Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet 1235-1310) captured the desperate spiritual angst of the times when he declared:

 [T]he [Jewish] people are split in two [as a result of the Maimonidean Controversies].[2]


Geographically, one of these conflicts played out between the rabbis of Southern France (who had largely adopted the Maimonidean approach) and their antagonists, the mystical rabbis of Northern France who were supported by the Spanish mystics. [See Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]

Torn somewhere between the mystics and the rationalists was the Southern French rabbi, Abba Mari (1250-1306) who although a ‘mild’ rationalist, is considered to have sided with the mystics in Barcelona.

In Barcelona, Rashba, known as El Rab d'España, had issued a ban against the study of ‘philosophy’ and wanted the Southern French rabbis to follow suit. Philosophy, or ‘the works of the Greeks’ was a thinly veiled reference to Maimonidean rationalism. His ban applied to anyone under the age of twenty-five. This ban, in the form of a letter, was dramatically read out by R. Abba Mari on a Shabbat morning in a synagogue in Montpellier (Southern France) on Erev Rosh haShana in 1304. 

An objection was immediately raised by R. Yaakov ben Machir Ibn Tibbon, and chaos and confusion ensued in the synagogue and the community.

R. Yaakov ben Machir ibn Tibbon was the grandson of Shmuel ibn Tibbon (who had translated Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew). Yaakov ben Machir ibn Tibbon, also known as Don Profiat, was the senior Jewish scholar in Montpellier, around 1300 and his works are even quoted by Copernicus. Interestingly, he spent some time in Spain where he studied under Nachmanides although ideologically he adhered to the rationalist teachings of Maimonides.

When the Jews of Southern France refused to accept such a ban, Rashba himself imposed it directly on them, going over the heads of their own rabbinic leadership. Within days of the issue of the ban, a group of enraged southern French rabbis excommunicated Abba Mari for recruiting and inciting Rashba against them. In response, Abba Mari excommunicated them. Chaos ensued.  
In this article, we will look at R. Abba Mari and see how ironically, although he suffered ex-communication by the rationalists as a traitor, he nevertheless also opposed the use of amulets by the mystics.


At the height of the Anti-Maimonidean Controversies, there was an exchange of some 127 letters between Abba Mari from Provence[3] in Southern France and Rashba in Barcelona. These letters were published by Abba Mari, under the title Minchat Kena’ot (Offerings of Zeal).

The collection of correspondence begins with a controversy regarding what Shatzmiller calls ‘medical astrology’.
Certain Jewish physicians in Montpellier (Provence) were using a set of amulets or ‘astrological talismans’ to for purposes of allegedly healing an ailing right kidney.

According to Professor Joseph Shatzmiller[4]:

“To his great astonishment, Abba Mari came to learn in about the year 1300 that Ibn Adret [Rashba][5] was not ready to condemn such a practice and that he actually approved of it, while Abba Mari considered it to be straight-forward idolatry.”

The same Rashba who essentially banned Maimonides[6] and who Abba Mari considered a theological ally, was endorsing a non-rationalist practice which in Abba Mari’s eyes was a form of idol worship!

Abba Mari was inquisitive and he soon discovered that the magical object was a figure of a lion ‘without a tongue’ and that there were more objects which all related to the Zodiac and which could be used, according to the practitioners, for ‘multiple healings’.

This astounded Abba Mari. Eventually, he located (parts of) a book, entitled Sefer haTzurot or Book of Figures which described the intricacies of such practices. He then writes to Rashba:

"Sir, would that you have seen the [description of the talisman] the way I saw it in the 'Book of Figures’”.

Abba Mari continues to write about a Montpellier doctor, Rabbi Isaac de Lattes[7], who actually made the amulet:

"All the authorities here ... are inclined to ban [the talisman] including the honorable Master Isaac de Lattes who produced and conceived this figure. He said to us: 'It is true that I made this figure although it is forbidden to do it in my opinion. But what can I do if the great master ... Ibn Adret [Rashba][8] permitted it.’”[9]

Rashba responded that all this was nothing new to him and that even the father of Jewish mysticism, Nachmanides (1194-1270) himself, was using it in his medical practice![10]

Rashba writes in two different Responsa:

“I heard from my Master, Nachmanides...that he had made such an image of a lion, as you [Abba Mari reported] and he was not bothered by it in the least.”[11]
“And I said that even our Master, the Great Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman [Nachmanides]...permitted it and used it.” [12]


The use of amulets and talismans for healing was widespread amongst the Kabbalists and mystics. It had created quite a stir within the Jewish community as the rationalists ridiculed such practices. Because of this divide, even some ‘centrists’ like Abba Mari did not know where to position themselves on the spectrum between the mystical and rational approaches of Judaism. 

Eventually, Abba Mari sided with Rashba and Nachmanides in opposition to the spiritual rationalism of Rambam – yet he also believed that they way kidneys were healed in 14th-century Montpellier was pure idolatry; and he grappled with the fact that his mystical allies had endorsed such practices.

Abba Mari wasn’t alone, as even the doctor who made the amulets personally believed it was forbidden under the Torah law, yet he faithfully relied on the view of Rashba (and Nachmanides who actually used such amulets) to make these talismans to use in his practice.

This gives one some idea of the theological angst that prevailed during the Anti-Maimonidean Controversies of 14th-century Provence.

In a sense, echoes of this theological angst still reverberate to this very day - despite the overwhelmingly comfortable mainstream - in the minds of those who are aware that Judaism continues to have deeply divergent Hashkafic options.

Part B.

NOTE TO READER: What follows is quite a technical section which may be meaningful only to those who are interested in the textual and analytical process which Professor Joseph Shatzmiller engaged in while tracing the origins of the elusive Sefer haTzurot used for astrological treatments.


I have drawn extensively from the research of Professor Joseph Shatzmiller who specialises medieval European-Jewish history.[13]
Shatzmiller embarked upon an intense research project to identify and locate the elusive book called Sefer haTzurot, or The Book of (healing) Figures referenced by Abba Mari. The problem was that it did not exist in any catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts.


Shatzmiller shows that Abba Mari (who objected to this book) was a contemporary of a Christian professor at Montpellier University who authored a Latin medical-astrological work which “bears striking resemblance to the ‘Book of Figures’.

He also shows that similar works were translated from Spanish into Latin during the 1200s.
R. Yaakov ben Machir ibn Tibbon[14] (ca. 1236-1307) mentions on more than one occasion that "our wisdom and science are known to the Gentiles."

This indicates that there was a considerable degree of cross-pollination taking place between Jews and the Christian population, certainly with regard to amulets for healing. Many astrological works were translated from Hebrew into Latin and also from Latin to Hebrew.

Shatzmiller explains that much of this information about Jewish and Christian contact actually comes from the ancient French university archives and that more information will be known as more of these archives become available for further study.


There is much evidence that doctors were using amulets to heal. In 1301, one Arnold of Villanova used a talisman of a lion to treat the kidney of none other than Pope Boniface VIII. This was considered controversial even in Christian circles:

 "[T]he cardinals were quite astonished about the whole thing, about the master who gets involved in such things, and about the pope; how could he publicize such things or even tolerate them?”[15]

Shatzmiller writes:

“It is clear then that Abba Mari was not the only one at that time to be indignant concerning the turn the medical profession took: while he reproached the Jewish doctors in Montpellier and specifically Isaac de Lattes, ‘ who produced and conceived this figure,’  Arnold of Villanova was put on the defensive ... and had to bear the cold looks and indignation of the cardinals.”

It is clear that what was happening in the Jewish community was being replicated in the Christian community with one Christian inventory report stating:

"Seven impressions of a lion impressed in gold and eleven in copper which help against the pains of the kidney, especially those of gold."[16]


Shatzmiller shows how Arnold of Villanove (who treated the Pope) wrote a similar work to the elusive Sefer haTzurot, entitled Sigilla:

 “Each paragraph starts with a very short statement concerning the form of the invariably round medal and the materials, gold or silver, of which it should be made. An indication is also given briefly as to the astrological constellation in which the medal must be engraved. Then comes a rather detailed benediction that must be recited upon that occasion, together with very specific instructions concerning the inscription that should be engraved on both sides of the coin, inscriptions which, in some cases, include Hebrew and Greek words. Naturally, each medal bore the picture of the zodiacal sign. The Arnaldine paragraph then concludes with a list of ailments that may be cured, as well as indications for some other uses of the medal.”

But, although the content is remarkably similar, Shatzmille determines that this is neither sufficient nor absolute proof that it was the same book, Sefer haTzurot.


Carrying on the search for the provenance and origins of Sefer haTzurot, Shatzmiller suggests another candidate, Bernard de Gordon who was the medical professor at the University of Montpellier at the time of Abba Mari. We know that Bernard de Gordon collaborated with Yaakov ben Machir ibn Tibbon.

In his Minchat Kenaot, Abba Mari described Sefer haTzurot as follows:

"I gathered from one scholar that there exists a certain book [specializing] in these matters, in which the heavenly sphere is divided into forty-eight constellations which are the twelve signs of the zodiac plus twenty-one southern constellations and fifteen northern constellations. It is through them that all this sorcery and these figures are derived. [As for these] figures, some are made of special metal, which [the physician] then wraps with a cloth tinted in a particular color and for [which he] then burns incense of myrrh [Hebrew: mor] or through wax."[17]

Bernard de Gordon wrote a work, entitled Tractatus which also deals with such matters (and is particularly concerned about the time of day when these talismans are most effective[18]). However, according to Shatzmiller - although very similar - the work also does not fit perfectly enough with the specific details of Sefer haTzurot, so he concludes that Bernard de Gordon is also not necessarily the originator.

Interestingly though, Bernard de Gordon, who is historically regarded as an influential doctor in the development of medicine[19], refers in his writing to a ‘Master Moses’ ("Et est opinio magistri Moyses"[20]) who he regards as an authority.

Shatzmiller adamantly maintains that this is not a reference to Moses Maimonides as he was absolutely opposed to the practice of astrology[21], but suggests it is a reference to Moses Nachmanides, who according to Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet 1235-1310) used such techniques in his medical practice:


Shatzmiller continues to narrow down the search for the authenticity of Sefer haTzurot to a Hebrew medical-astrological work entitled Tzurot Shneim Asar Mazzalot (henceforth Mazzalot), or The Figures of the Twelve Constellations, housed at Cambridge University[22]. This is the only known copy of the manuscript, and it was written anonymously in Italy at around 1400.

The Mazzalot reveal the source of its information as originating in a work called Sefer haTzurot! Now we know that the book actually existed.

Furthermore, the Mazzalot reference the controversy over amulets and talismans which took place around 1300.

By comparing the texts below, it seems clear that Abba Mari in his Minchat Kenaot based himself on the Mazzalot:

Shatzmiller explains that although it is fairly certain that Abba Mari saw the Mazzalot, we cannot state that as fact. What can be said with a great deal of confidence, though, is that a Hebrew version of Sefer haTzurot did exist in Montpellier in the early 1300s – and that this Hebrew version was known to Abba Mari and was also incorporated into the Mazzalot housed at Cambridge today.


Since Bernard de Gordon’s Tractatus is so similar but not identical to the Mazzalot, it is safe to assume they were both relying on another source text. Shatzmiller suggests this source text is the 11th-century Arabic work, Ghayat al-hakim or The Aim of the Sage (also known as Picatrix in Spanish and Latin translations).

The texts of the Ghayat and Mazzalot are ‘almost completely similar’ and match each other very well.
With the Ghayat we come closest to a source for our Sefer haTzurot. However, Shatzmiller says that further study is necessary to determine whether Ghayat is a translation of Mazzalot or the opposite.
This is perhaps the closest anyone has got to discovering the source and nature of the elusive book, Sefer haTzurot, The Book of Figures.


Professor Joseph Shatzmiller’s original presentation is of course far more detailed, complex and accurate than the simplified version I have attempted to depict here, but one does get an idea of the scholarship and detective work involved in research of this nature...just to identify a book referenced in passing, in a 14th-century letter by Abba Mari to Rashba.

[1] Lexico.
[2] Minchat Kena’ot p. 730.
[3] Pronounced ‘provance’.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] The ban was officially declared in around 1304.
[7] Isaac ben Yehudah de Lattes.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] See Minhat Kena'ot, no. 5, p. 32.
[10] Rashba Responsa 1:61, no. 167. Rashba did, however, condemn practices that involved incense (Responsa 1:145, no. 413.)
[11] Rashba Responsa 1: 250, no. 825.
[12] Rashba Responsa 1: 145, no. 413.
[14] Also known as Don Profiat and Prophatius Judaeus. Interestingly, he spent some time in Spain where he studied under Nachmanides although ideologically he adhered to the rationalist teachings of Maimonides.
[15] Bruno Delmas, Medailles astrologiques talismaniques dans le Mid de la France. (Toulouse, 1771).
[16] Archives de la Ville de Marseille (MS 9 ii 187, fols. 4v-5r)
[17] Minchat Kenaot no. 1, p 21.
[18] Abba Mari also mentioned that Sefer haTzurot was concerned about ‘many’ astrological conditions: "And here is what I have discovered in the 'Book of Figures': That for the sake of sick people [suffering the illness of] the right kidney a figure of a lion should be made, without tongue, in a straight and not deformed way. Also, it has to be made on a sun's day and in its hour.
[19] According to Chaucer, Bernard de Gordon writings were to become part of the core curriculum of the best-trained European doctors of medieval Europe. Bernard de Gordon was one of that small group of medieval physicians who reverently followed Galenic lore which had endured for a thousand years yet who began to challenge its details and to experiment clinically with new methods of treatment. In his writings, Bernard de Gordon made the first reference to spectacles.
[20] MS Wiesbaden 79, fol. 55r reads: "Et est opinio magistri
[21] Isadore Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) (New Haven, and London, 1980), pp. 481-82.
[22] Folios 94v-97v of MS Add. 1741.

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