Sunday 27 February 2022

373) Kabbalah – a product of the East or West?


Jews and Sufis shared music traditions


Kabbalah, until just a few decades ago, was generally understood in as originating within a Eurocentric context. It was believed to have emerged essentially from centres like Italy, Provence (southern France), Germany and Spain. In scholarly circles, this was the result particularly of the work by Gershom Scholem,[1] who was convinced of Gnostic origins to Kabbalah: He writes that it is:

surprising that the [Kabbalistic][2] doctrine…was deeply related to Gnosticism, but such are the dialectics of history” (Scholem 1941:286).

Gnosticism is defined as:

a collection of religious ideas and systems which coalesced in the late 1st century…among Jewish and early Christian sects. These various groups emphasised personal spiritual knowledge above the orthodox teachings, traditions, and authority of religious institutions.”[3]

However recent research places its geographic and theoretical origins more within a Middle eastern context. Moshe Idel, a foremost scholar in Kabbalah changed the focus of attention regarding the origins of Kabbalistic thought, when surprisingly in 1991, wrote:

"Muslim culture is the primary source of influence upon Jewish mysticism.'[4]

This article, based extensively on the research of Professor Ronald C. Kiener,[5] further probes this rather novel notion of Islamic influences on the Kabbalah. This is an interesting idea as it rewrites Kabbalistic history as we know it. Nevertheless, it deserves attention because much of this research is taken from internal Kabbalistic sources.

Transition from Ancient Near East to the Muslim Middle East:

The Muslim conquests of the seventh century CE marked the transition from what was known as the Ancient Near East to the Muslim Middle East. The Jews had been inhabiting that geographic location since much earlier times living, as they did, under Persian and Byzantium rule during the Talmudic period (the Talmud was redacted a century earlier in around 500 CE).

Kiener (2011:149) points out that the transition to Muslim rule was peaceful:

There was no great upheaval with the arrival of the Muslim conquerors and their subsequent Umayyad regime. Indeed, all the major Jewish communities survived intact, and all the major communal institutions - the rabbinic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, the institutions of the Gaonate and the Exilarchate-flourished. More important, what was taught in the Jewish academies was left untouched by the new regime. What was preached and inculcated by rabbis of Sassanid Iran and Byzantine Palestine continued to be preached and inculcated by rabbis of Muslim Iraq and Palestine.

This indicates that the Jewish magical and mystical tradition would have similarly been preserved in its complete form. Kiener (2011:149) supports this notion by turning to the data which shows that:

texts, archived magical papyri, amulets, and incantation bowls both before and after the Muslim conquest all attest to the popular survival of hoary Jewish magic and learned meditations, even as the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic formulae began to be peppered with Judeo-Arabic.”

So, the basic mystical tradition remained intact except for the appearance of some Judeo-Arabic writings (as opposed to the older Hebrew and Aramaic writings). These texts would have included the older Heichalot and Merkava literature which was the staple of pre-Zoharic mystical literature, as the Zohar was only published in around 1290. These early pre-Zoharic mystical texts continued to be copied and reproduced in Muslim lands without interference, and they appeared to be prevalent in those lands.

Merkava literature migrates from Muslim lands to Europe between the 9-13th centuries.

By the ninth century, we begin to see a sharp focus of Islamic mystical thought reflected within Jewish mysticism. These forms of cross-pollinated mystical ideology begin to be transferred to Europe. There are many versions of a story about a Jewish sage who travelled from Baghdad to Italy and transferred the mystical tradition from the East to the West. The accounts differ over a number of centuries as to exactly when this transfer occurred. In one form or another the literature points to a sage from Baghdad handing over a secret mystical tradition to another sage in Italy who eventually transfers it to the German Rhineland where the mystical group of Chassidei Ashkenaz begin to form under the leadership of R. Yehudah heChasid and this group flourished between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Kiener 2011:151).

a) One of the versions of this historically significant episode is found in the writings of the Spanish rabbi, Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov of the fifteenth century. He writes that a certain R. Kashisha from the Iraqi academy of Mata Mechasya (Sura), travelled to Apulia in Italy during the twelfth century. The great R. Yehuda heChasid, in turn, journeyed from Corbeil in France, to meet him and to study from him.

b) Another version places the transferal of the mystical tradition from Muslim lands to the West three hundred years earlier, at around the ninth century. This account is found in the Chronicle of Achima’as which was produced in Italy in 1054. According to this version, the mystical rabbi’s name was Abu Aharon, or Aharon ben Shmuel of Baghdad, a known teacher of Merkavah mysticism. Abu Aharon is also said to have visited Apulia in Italy and he meets with the ancestors of R. Yehuda heChasid from the famous Kalonymus family. Later, R. Eleazar of Worms, the last of the Chassidei Ashkenaz, records a detailed list of seventeen generations of the Kalonymus family who passed this mystical tradition down to him.

R. Eleazar alluded to the possible content of these mystical teachings from Abu Aharon as having to do with the prayer liturgy. Kiener (2011:152) suggests this may be related to the fact that the first formalised siddurim (prayer books) were produced in Iraq during the ninth and tenth centuries by Rav Amram Gaon and Rav Sadiah Gaon.[6] Prayer, in the mystical tradition, takes on a more theurgic role than common ‘prayer’ and this is why these ‘secrets’ were of significance to the mystics.

c) Yet another version of this transfer from East to West is offered by R. Yitzchak ben Yakov Cohen of Soria (in north central Spain) towards the end of the thirteenth century, who writes:

When I was in the great city of Arles[7] [France], a master of this tradition showed me an extremely old booklet. Its handwriting was crude and is different from our own. It was transmitted in the name of a great rabbi and gaon. They referred to him as Rabbi Mashliach. Now the venerable Gaon, our Rabbi Pelatiah, was from the holy city of Jerusalem. And this booklet was brought by a great scholar and pietist known as Rabbi Gershom of Damascus. He hailed from Damascus and lived in Arles for approximately two years, and people there told stories about his great wisdom and wealth. He showed this booklet to the elder sages of that generation. I copied from it some things.”[8]

All these different accounts have one thing in common, the long-existent Merkavah texts of early Jewish mysticism were transplanted to European soil from the Middle East some time between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. This way, the esoteric lore - which developed in the pre-Islamic Ancient Near East, and thrived under Islamic rule in the new Middle East, particularly in the prominent Sufi and Shi’ite centres of Baghdad and southern Iraq - was migrated to Europe.

Traces of this Jewish mystical tradition can be found, as David Halperin has shown in his Faces of the Chariot, in the tafsir and hadith and possibly even in the Qur'an itself. Keiner (2011:153) suggests that this osmosis may have moved in both directions, especially one would imagine, as there was no persecution and the two traditions lived side by side in relative tranquillity.

One example of this cultural interaction would be images such as the Zoharic notion of “cahmor noseh sefarim” (a donkey carrying books)[9] and the similar Quranic image of “al-himar yahmilu asfaran”.[10] There are numerous Arabisms in the 1 600 pages of the Zohar, as well as “doctrinal affinities to Sufi teachings” (Kiener 2011:163).

The new theosophic Kabbalah of the thirteenth century

Just before the thirteenth century, a new style of mysticism emerges, which departs from the more ‘visionary’ esotericism of the Merkava and Heichalot literature, and encompasses a more theoretic and theosophic approach.

The three mystical schools of the thirteenth century

The thirteenth century is probably the most important in the development of Jewish mysticism. Three very distinct and significant mystical schools begin to emerge simultaneously. Each has some connection to the “interaction between Islamic and Jewish cultures” (Kiener 2011:156).

1) Sefer haBahir and Sefer haZohar

The first of this new theosophic style of Kabbalah is the Sefer haBahir which emerges is Provence in southern France. Kiener (2011:154) explains:

“This book, which is shot through with symbolic and Gnostic themes heretofore unknown in Jewish circles, centers around the revolutionary teaching that God's mystery is made manifest through ten divine emanations, or sefirot, which constitute a cosmic tree, a symbolic matrix of hypostases that interact in a Gnostic pleroma of cosmic good and evil, and in their totality provide the mystic with knowledge of the divine Being.”

This is the first time that the idea of sefirot begin to appear within Jewish mysticism and the Zohar, published first in Spain at around 1290, developed these sefirot even further.

However, the basis for the Bahir (France), which led to the Zohar (Spain), has its origins, not in Europe but in an earlier work entitled Sefer Raza Rabba, or the Book of the Great Secret, which surfaced around the ninth century in Iraqi and Palestinian circles. This, again, indicates a movement from East to West.

The Sefer Raza Rabba (which was still more magical than theosophic) is first mentioned by the Karaite sage Daniel al-Kumisi, who condemns such mysticism. Later in the eleventh century it is again mentioned and praised by Rav Hai Gaon of Baghdad.

According to Scholem, the Bahir (while produced in France) shows signs of Arabic influence. In one section of the Bahir which speaks of the Hebrew vowel “chirik” (the single dot under some letters), it asks: “U ma shema chirik” (what is the meaning of chirik)? And answers: “Chirik lesahon soref” (chirik is an expression of burning).[11] This connotation of burning is not found in Hebrew nor Aramaic but only in Arabic (charaka).

Again, this indicates some degree of influence from the East. To what extent remains an open question but the influence is there and deserves further investigation (Kiener 2011:156).

2) The prophetic Kabbalah of Abulafia (1240-1291)

Avraham Abulafia is a “perplexing figure for modern scholars” (Kiener 2011:160). He was relatively unknown until recently because his writings remained largely inaccessible as they were in manuscript form. Only from the nineteenth century did he become a better-known Kabbalist. Today, Moshe Idel, ascribes significant Islamic influences playing a part in Abulafia’s mysticism. His mysticism is unusual and unique in that:

His mysticism was a mysticism of Maimonidean psychology, where the soul through a particular kind of prescribed meditation is led to the divine effulgence and to a deathlike experience of utter unity with the Divine Being. The goal of the mystical path was to untie the knots which bound the soul to the material world and to thereby achieve a prophetic ecstasy, at which moment the mystic perceives himself to be one with God” (Kiener 2011:160).

Abulafia was conversant in Arabic religious terminology and traces of Sufi mysticism can be detected within his writing. These include a first-person account (which is rare in Judaism) of his meditations and spiritual journeys, a ‘step by step’ manual-like approach to achieving such ends, and an aim to attain a death-like unity with G-d where he reaches a state on connecting with “Hu hu”, where “he is He”. This is a replication of the Persian mystic and Sufi teacher, Al-Hallaj (858-952). Even the theosophical Kabbalah of Spain speaks more of deveikut, or clinging to G-d, and is reluctant to be so bold as describe a death-like union with G-d.

Furthermore, a student of Abulafia, Natan ben Saadiah, wrote his short work entitled Sha’arei Tzedek, or Gates of Righteousness, which is remarkably similar to Islamic spiritual practices (Kiener 2011:161). Natan ben Saadiah writes about Islamic ascetics who:

employ all manner of devices to shut out from their souls all "natural forms;' every image of the familiar, natural world. Then, they say, when a spiritual form, an image from the spiritual world, enters their soul, it is isolated in their imagination and intensifies the imagination to such a degree that they can determine beforehand that which is to happen to us. Upon inquiry, I learned that they recite (zokhrim) the Name of God in the Ishmaelite language, and they say ‘Allah:' I investigated further and I found that when they pronounce these letters they direct their thought completely away from every ‘naturaI form' and the very letters ALLAH and their diverse powers work upon them. They are carried off into a trance without realizing how…”[12]

He also includes an accurate description of the Sufi practice of dhikr.

3) Avraham ben haRambam and five generation of Jewish Sufis in Egypt

In a most unlikely turn of events, the only son of the rationalist thinker Maimonides (1135-1204), Avraham ben haRambam, who was eighteen years old when his father passed away, instituted an Egyptian form of Jewish mysticism which dominated that region until Maimonides’ descendant five generations later, David the Naggid, who passed away in 1415. This movement was quite significant and was practiced by the upper-class Jewish community of Cairo for some time and may also have drawn on refugees form the Almohad persecutions of Spain.[13]

Avraham wrote a lengthy work entitled Kifayat al-Abidin, to defend his father who had come under severe criticism for his rationalist approach to Judaism. In it he claimed that his father turned to a more mystical approach towards the end of his days:

Abraham maintains that the ascetic and pietist turn he provides to his father’s system is precisely what his father passed down to him, and that the classical texts of Judaism are encoded with an esoteric set of secrets…” (Kiener 2011 157-158).

Avraham makes frequent reference to zuhd, or asceticism and he praises the practices of the local Sufis of Cairo. He claimed that the Sufi practices were once the proclivity of the ancient Jewish prophets but had fallen out of Jewish hands. Avraham ben haRambam writes:

You know that there is to be found amongst these Sufis of Islam (al mutasawwifun min al-islam) - because of the sins of lsrael - the ways of the ancient holy Israelites, which is not to be found or is little found amongst our present-day community.”[14]

Avraham ben haRambam speaks about the need for isolation and tears in prayer[15] as well reliance on charity. The Cairo Geniza has yielded many texts in both Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic attesting to Sufi influenced works intended for a Jewish audience as well as Hebrew transcriptions of classical Sufi literature (Kiener 2011:159).


We have seen three different accounts, from internal Kabbalistic sources, attesting to a movement and migration of mystical ideology from Muslim lands to European soil between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, indicating that mysticism was, until that time, not germane to Europe.

We have noted the three significant mystical movements of around the thirteenth century: two in Europe - (the circle of the Bahir and Zohar in France and Spain respectively) and the circle of Abulafia (in Spain and Italy) - and one in Egypt (the Sufi circle of Abraham ben haRambam in Cairo). All these movements had one thing in common, a connection to origins from Muslim lands if not to outright practices from those lands.

The question, though, remains: given the reasonable assumption that Jewish mysticism was transferred to European lands from Muslim lands, and given that there must have been a degree of cross-pollination of mystical ideology flowing between Islamic and Jewish mysticism – to what quantitative and qualitative extent did these influences take place?


Further reading



For more on the general shift form Baghdad to the West see: Kotzk Blog: 092) THE 'FOUR CAPTIVES' - WHEN EVIDENCE CONFRONTS HISTORY:

[1] Scholem, G., 1941, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Third revised edition, Schocken Books, New York.

[2] Parenthesis is mine.

[4] Idel, M., 1991, ‘Jewish Mysticism and Muslim Mysticism;' Mahanayyim 1, 33 (Hebrew).

[5] Kiener, R. C., 2011, ‘Jewish Mysticism in the Lands of the Ishmaelites’  in The Convergence of Judaism and Islam: Religious, Scientific, and Cultural Dimensions, Edited by Michael M. Laskier and Yaacov Lev, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 147-167. 

[6] The first ritualised form of prayer, including the berachot (blessings), shemona esrei and others sections, were, according to tradition, arranged by the Anshe Keneset haGedolah in the time of Ezra from c. 500 BCE.

[7] Pronounced “Aal”.

[8] Published by G. Scholem, Mada'ei ha-Yahadut 2 (1927): 248-9.

[9] Zohar Chadash 101c.

[10] Qur’an 62:5.

[11] Bahir # 28.

[12] See Kiener, R., 1989, ‘The Image of Islam in the Zohar’, in Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 8, 45-46*nn7-10.

[13] See Paul Fenton's edition of al-Murshid ila al-Tafarrud wa'l-Murfid ila al-Tajarrud (Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1997); Fenton, Deux traites de mystique juive (Lagrasse: Verdier, 1987).

[14] Abraham Maimonides, The Highways of Perfection, ed. S. Rosenblatt, 1938, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2:266

[15] Interestingly, these are two features of the later teachings of R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810).

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