Abulafia's Life and Work
Abulafia was born in Saragossa, Spain, in 1240. He spent his first twenty years in Spain before beginning a life that was often characterized by wandering. His rabbinic education was good, but far from outstanding. On the other hand, his knowledge of philosophy was quite extensive.
Barukh Togarmi was a Kabbalist and a cantor who was Abulafia's teacher probably during the three years Abulafia lived in Barcelona (1270–1273). Togarmi, who wrote a commentary to Sefer Yetzirah, used the methods of gematria, notarikon, and temurah in his quest for mystical knowledge of the Name of God. Abulafia made great use of these methods of interpretation also.
Like other prominent Kabbalists of the time, such as Moshe de Leon and Yosef Gikatilla, Abulafia took an interest in Maimonides’ philosophical work Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed) before he became a Kabbalist. Unlike Moshe de Leon, the main author of the Zohar (who, incidentally, was also born in Spain in 1240), he never ceased to feel a great affinity with Maimonides. In fact, Abulafia wrote three Kabbalistic commentaries on Maimonides’ Guide, and for a few years made a living teaching it.
In Search of a Mythical River
Abulafia's father died when Abraham was only eighteen, and two years later, Abulafia journeyed to the land of Israel in search of the mythical river Sambatyon. A journey of this length, particularly in those days, was quite an ordeal. According to legend, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel dwelled beyond the Sambatyon. Talmudic legend characterized the Sambatyon as a very rough river during the six weekdays, but what was particularly unusual about this river was that it rested on the Sabbath.
Abulafia left the Land of Israel because of warlike conditions between the Muslims and Christians in the region. He took a boat from Acco to Greece and spent the next ten years in Greece and Italy. Scholars speculate as to whether he made contact with Sufis (Islamic mystics) in the land of Israel because some of his meditational methods seem comparable to those of Sufis. Abulafia also focused on breathing techniques during meditation and scholars wonder whether he may have been indirectly influenced by Yoga via Sufism.
Sufism is traditionally understood to be the inner, mystical, and esoteric teachings of Islam. Sufis particularly stress the importance of love as central to the essence of God, and focus on reducing the ego and seeing the beauty in the seemingly ugly and the good in what appears most evil.
Barukh Togarmi initiated Abulafia into the secrets of Sefer Yetzirah. Abulafia himself eventually wrote a commentary to Sefer Yetzirah called Gan Na'ul (The Locked Garden). In 1271, at the age of thirty-one, Abulafia had his first transformative experience. He understood the experience as that of attaining prophetic inspiration and he began teaching his methods and insights to a small number of chosen students. Yosef Gikatilla, who became a well-known and influential Kabbalist in his own right, was Abulafia's foremost student. Gikatilla, who later became close with Moshe de Leon, wrote important works both in the theosophical Kabbalistic vein and in the “Way of the Names,” as Abulafia called his own Kabbalistic system.
Abulafia wrote close to fifty works. A little more than half were Kabbalistic texts of various sorts. In addition to commentaries on Sefer Yetzirah and Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim, he wrote numerous books in which he explains his meditation techniques, teaches the secrets of the various names of God, and writes his insights into the Torah and the mitzvot.
Abulafia also wrote another type of work, which he called his prophetic books. Of the more than twenty that he wrote, only one has survived, Sefer HaOt (The Book of the Sign; the word Ot, however, also means “letter”). These emerge more out of his immediate experiences.
Going to See the Pope
In the summer of 1280, Abulafia went to Rome to see Pope Nicholas III, to speak on behalf of the Jewish people and to persuade the pope to improve the difficult conditions under which they lived.
In medieval Europe the Church at times subjected Jews to “disputations” in which they were forced to defend Judaism against Christianity. If in the course of the disputation the judges decided that a Jew had blasphemed against Christianity, he would be put to death. A famous disputation in Paris in 1240 resulted in the public burning of the Talmud.
The most famous disputation that ever occurred was the one imposed upon the Ramban, Nachmanides, in 1263. This debate, which occurred in Barcelona, was attended by many church officials and by the king of Aragon himself. However, unlike most public disputations, Nachmanides was promised by the king that he could speak freely and would not be accused of blasphemy if he denied that Jesus fulfilled the messianic predictions in the Bible.
During the course of the four formal debates with a Jewish convert to Christianity, Pablo Christiani, Nachmanides was generally considered to have argued more persuasively and the king honored him. However, the king told Nachmanides afterward that he could no longer guarantee his safety, and Nachmanides, at the age of sixty-eight, underwent the journey to Jerusalem.
During the disputation Nachmanides said that an indication of the messianic era would be when the Messiah would go to the pope to represent the Jews. Abulafia clearly had messianic ambitions, as he went to Rome for the purpose of representing the Jewish people. Pope Nicholas III, hearing of Abulafia's intentions, ordered him arrested and put to death by burning. Though Abulafia was forewarned about this, he ignored the warnings and continued his journey, entering Rome, only to be imprisoned. However, that night the pope suddenly died. Abulafia was kept for a month in the College of the Franciscans and was subsequently freed.
After his release, Abulafia went to Sicily and remained there for most of the rest of his life. During this period of time he composed the majority of his books. He attracted a number of people to his teachings and created a stir as a result of his belief in himself as the Messiah. People of the community who opposed his claims wrote to the most influential rabbi of the times, Rabbi Shlomo ben Abraham Adret, also known as the Rashba, who lived in Barcelona.
There is a body of literature known as responsa consisting of questions and responses by rabbinic authorities. Responsa are already mentioned in the Talmud, but this form of literature became very important in the Middle Ages and collections of individual rabbis’ responses concerning scriptural interpretation, Jewish Law, philosophy, and innumerable other topics have been published.
In a collection of the Rashba's responsa we find a very harsh reply to Abulafia's messianic claims. The Rashba was a Kabbalist himself, in fact he was the main disciple of Nachmanides. He essentially said that Abulafia was a charlatan. Abulafia responded to this criticism in a letter to a colleague of the Rashba's in Barcelona, Rabbi Yehuda Salmon, who had been a student of Abulafia's in the early 1270s. This letter, which has been printed under the title “V'Zot L'Yehuda” (And This Is to Yehuda), contains some of Abulafia's criticisms of Theosophical Kabbalah. Generally, Abulafia respected the “Way of the Sefirot,” considering it good for beginners, while seeing his own form of Kabbalah, the “Way of the Names,” as enabling a person to achieve true knowledge of, and union with, God.
The Rashba was a Theosophical Kabbalist in the vein of his teacher Nachmanides and was very critical of Abulafia's claims to prophecy. As a result of this controversy and the criticism he was drawing over his messianic aspirations, Abulafia was forced to flee Sicily. In his few remaining years he continued to write, and he died in 1291.