There are various types of mysticism known from Jewish sources. All of them seek communion with or identity with the ultimate reality of G-d through direct experience or insight. The mystical experiences of Abraham Abulafia of the 13th century are categorized under the label of prophetic or ecstatic Kabbalah. In prophetic Kabbalah, the goal of the mystic is to attain a spiritual experience on par with that of the biblical prophets. In the person of Abulafia, ecstatic Kabbalah, apocalypticism, and messianism reached a unique synthesis. Abulafia saw himself as a Messianic figure with visions of apocalyptic wars and experiential encounter reminiscent of the biblical prophets.[1]

Abulafia and Maimonides

The influence of Maimonides, an Aristotelian rationalist, upon Abulafia is quite interesting. Maimonides’ view that prophecy was the pinnacle of human religious experience was something which found resonance in Abulafia. Prophecy in the Maimonidean understanding reflected the transition of what a person was to what he could become. The prophet was a person who had achieved their spiritual potential.[2]

Maimonides held however that unlike the biblical prophets, individuals of his present-day needed to ascend the rungs of human perfection before they could achieve prophecy. The preparation and perfection of man’s moral and rational faculties were essential.[3] This emphasis on the rational aspect of thought was especially true for Maimonides because he believed that the intellect was the attribute that humans shared in common with G-d. The intellect of the human that had achieved the state of perfection could touch the divine intellect.[4]

For Maimonides the away to achieve this was clear. In his Guide to the Perplexed he writes:

“There are some who direct all their mind towards the attainment of perfection in Metaphysics, devote themselves entirely to G-d, exclude from their thought every other thing, and comply all their intellectual faculties in the study of the Universe in order to derive therefrom a proof for the existence of G-d, and to learn in every possible way how G-d rules all things; they form the class of those who have entered the palace, namely, the class of prophets.”[5]

Abulafia agreed with Maimonides’ view of moral and intellectual perfection and also concurred with the view that faithful observance of the mitzvoth was a necessary prerequisite to reach a state of devekut or clinging to G-d. Nevertheless, Abulafia often found Maimonides’ rational tendency, i.e. in explaining the commandments as inadequate and even problematic.[6] Instead of encouraging people to follow the commandments by explaining the purported “rational “explanations for them, Abulafia believed this approach actually could cause many to abandon their observance. Abulafia preferred a deeper, more mystical understanding of the mitzvoth.

Achieving Devekut: The Power of Meditating on the Letters

For Abulafia as well as later mystics one method for achieving a prophetic experience was by meditating on the Hebrew letters, especially on the four letters of the Tetragrammaton.[7]

This form of meditation was quite popular among later Hasidim and a brief review of this approach is helpful in understanding the focus of this meditative approach. In his work, Degel Mahaneh Efrayim, Rabbi Ephraim comments on Exodus 25:7 which states:

“Onyx stones and ‘stones to be set,’ in the ephod and in the breastplate.”

For Rabbi Ephraim, these two types of stones reflect the two types or modes of Torah study existent. The first type refers to the rationally oriented approach of studying a text. In this approach, the reading the letters of the text serve the function of understanding the written meaning of the text. But, Rabbi Ephraim posits, another approach to studying Torah is also available. This method reflects bekhavanah deliba – a heartfelt intensity characterized by holy and pure thoughts.[8] In this approach, the letters themselves become the object of contemplation.

With the Sefer Yetzirah as its source, the principal goal of this type of Torah study is related to the importance of the Hebrew letters. The Hebrew letters precede the creation and G-d utilizes Hebrew letters to create the world. Meditating on the letters is a means of connecting to G-d and understanding the world. Devequt, clinging or cleaving to G-d is accomplished by meditating on the letters. The Zohar develops the idea of 22 letters and how these letters are living beings as if they are angelic beings. If the letters are angelic, then they are emanations of G-d. Arranging or rearranging letters is part of the process of achieving devekut or cleaving to G-d. As Wertheim explicates regarding Hasidic perspectives on the study of the Torah:

“...and just as a bride has a number of ornaments to awaken feelings of love, where these ornaments do serve as major function but are a preparation for the cleaving together, so too does the Torah have many ornaments, and these include studying through pilpul, or studying for some utilitarian purpose that one may have from ones’ study…these though are not the main purpose but ornaments of the supernal bride, so as to unify certain sefiros.”[9]

Interestingly, Abulafia rejected the idea of sefirot describing them as worse that the Christian Trinitarian doctrine.[10] Nevertheless, the underlying message is clear.

The medium of ideal Torah Lishmah then is the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Since these letters are of divine origin they reflect the ultimate manifestation of Torah and of human nature. At its extreme, true study of the Torah is focused on the letters; other forms are secondary or “ornamental.” Abulafia combined this idea with breathing exercises, physical movements, and concentration drills.

Beyond Devekut

In the case of Abulafia, devekut via the meditative techniques described was simply a starting point in reaching the ideal spiritual state. In a manner almost reminiscent of a mystical Pauline text, Abulafia viewed devekut as progressing from adhesion to reunion, from touching to absorption.[11] The goal for the mystic was for any distinction between G-d and himself to disappear. As Sherwin explains, the mystic and divine are no longer “he and He, but “I and I.”[12] In short, the mystic becomes part of the I of G-d.[13] Abulafia states:

“If the mystic has felt the divine touch and perceived its nature…his name is like the Name of his Master [G-d]…For now, he is no longer separate from his master, and behold he is his master and his master is he; for he is so intimately adhering to G-d [here the terms devekut] is used] that he cannot by any means be separate from him, for he is He. And just as his Master, who is detached from all matter is called…the knowledge, the knower and the known, all at the same time, since all three one in G-d; so shall he, the exalted individual, the master of the exalted Name [of G-d], he called intellect, while he is actually knowing, then he is also the known, like his Master, and then there is no difference between them.”[14]

For Abulafia, the human intellect is part of the overflowing of the Divine intellect.[15] The purpose of devekut is to provide a process of refinement which will eventually allow the human intellect to reunite with the Divine.[16] Having achieved this, the individual can now function as a prophet and foretell the future, reveal G-d’s will, and interpret the Torah.[17] In the case of Abulafia, this was reflected in his own messianic self-perception. In Sefer Ha-Hayyim, Abulafia relates a revelation he experienced:

”And He said that the mashiyah will arrive imminently, for he is already born. And he continued to discourse on the entire subject, and said ‘I am that individual.’”

As Moshe Idel notes:

“The proximity of prophecy and messianism in Abulafia’s writing is not accidental. It underlines the strong bond between them and provides a rationale for the continued complementary coexistence of these conceptual entities.”[18]

Conclusion

Abulafia produced an interesting fusion between Maimonides’ Aristotelian understanding of prophecy as the result of the alteration and refinement of the human intellect to touch the Divine intellect and techniques to reach such experiences by means of combinations of letters and their pronunciation, breathing exercises, physical movements, and concentration exercises. As Moshe Idel notes:

“By this synthesis between messianism and prophecy- the latter standing commonly in his writings for a certain type of ecstasy- Abulafia constructed a new model of understanding messianism in Jewish mysticism.”[19]



[1] Moshe Idel, Messianic Mystics, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 73. In Sefer Ha-Hayyim, Abulafia relates a revelation he experience:” And He said that the mashiyah will arrive immanently, for he is already born. And he continued to discourse on the entire subject, and said ‘I am that individual.’”

[2] Byron L. Sherwin, Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 24.

[3] Ibid., 146.

[4] Ibid., 146.

[5] M. Friedlander, trans., The Guide for the Perplexed, (New York: Dover, 1956), 385.

[6] Byron L. Sherwin, Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 148.

[7] Ibid., 152.

[8] Ibid., 262.

[9] Aaron Wertheim, Law and Custom in Hasidim, (Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, 1992), 62-63. The connectedness of this view to the teachings of the Besht can be found in a teaching of the Besht recorded by R. Meir Margalioth: “…the preferable intention in learning for its own sake is to connect oneself in holiness and purity to the letters, in potential and actuality, with speech and thought; to connect a portion of his nefesh-ruah-neshamah-hayah-yehidah [i.e. the five levels of the soul] to the holiness of the lamp of mitzvah and the light of the Torah, to the letters which give wisdom and bring down abundance of light and true eternal life. And when he has merited understanding and attaching himself to the holy letters he is even able to understand the future from the letters themselves…” Sod Yakhin u’Boaz (Satmare, n.d), 4a quoted in , Hasidim as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought, 312.

[10] Moshe Idel, Messianic Mystics, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 60.

[11] Galatians 2:20; Ibid., 148. Interestingly, Abulafia alluded to the identification of Jesus and the Messiah ben Joseph. He also linked the numerical equivalent of Jesus’ Hebrew name with that of “Yom HaShishi.” The connection appears to have given Jesus a preparatory messianic role. Byron L. Sherwin, Studies in Jewish Theology: Reflections in the Mirror of Tradition, (London,Valenine Mitchell, 207), 204-205.

[12] Ibid., 148.

[13] Ibid., 148.

[14] Cited in Moshe Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, 126.

[15] Byron L. Sherwin, Kabbalah: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 149.

[16] Ibid., 149.

[17] Ibid., 149.

[18] Moshe Idel, Messianic Mystics, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 63.

[19] Ibid., 76.


Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics.