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Abraham Abulafia, “Light of the Intellect,” 1285

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Abraham Abulafia’s “Sefer Hashem”.
13th century,
René Braginsky Manuscript Collection

Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia founder of “Prophetic Qabbalah” Zaragoza, Spain, 1240- Malta, 1291

Abulafia went to Italy and in Urbino he published (1279) prophetic writings, in which he records his conversations with God. In 1281 he undertook to convert the Pope, Martin IV, to Judaism. In Messina he imagined that it was revealed to him that he was the Messiah, and announced that the restoration of Israel would take place in 1296. His meditation techniques and his writings were cause of scandal among both Jews and Christians and forced him to find refuge in Comino (Malta) where he died in 1291.

In the year 1240, Abulafia was born in Zaragosa, on the Navarre strip in Spain. In 1242 his family moved to Tudela, where he received his education from his father Samuel. Not long after his father’s demise, in 1258, Abulafia began his quest for the Sambation river. Two years later, in 1260, he arrived, apparently through Greece, in Acco. We can assume that his search was connected to rumors of the arrival of the lost 10 tribes to the area, rumors that spread with the invasion of the Mongolian tribes into Syria and the Land of Israel.

Following the battle between the Mongols and the Mamluks in Ein Harod, and the defeat of the Mongols, Abulafia understood that these were not the lost tribes, and he returned the Europe. He settled for some years in the city Capua, dedicating himself to the study of Maimonides’ Moreh Nevuchim with the philosopher Hillel of Verona. At the end of the 1260s Abulafia arrived in Barcelona, where he learned Kabbalah, particularly a line of philosophic, Ashkenazi and kabbalistic interpretations to the Sefer Yetzira – Book of Creation – as well as Nahmanides’ fundamentals of Kabbalah, only learned in closed circles.

In 1270 or 1271, one of the most significant events of Abulafia’s life occurred. He merited a vision, in which he was ordered to talk with the Pope, as he indeed would attempt to do in about a decade. In 1279, he returned to Italy, through Trani back to Capua, where he taught Maimonides’ text. In the summer of 1280, 50-year-old Abulafia tried to realize the directive he received in his vision, to meet with Pope Nicholas III. To this end he followed the pope to his summer palace, and despite warnings that his attempts would bring him a certain death by burning, he succeeded in entering the palace, only to discover that the pope had suddenly died. In the following years Aublafia reached the city Messina in Sicily, where he remained for the greater part of the next decade. He attracted a number of students, whom he educated in his unique kabbalah, and continued with his messianic propaganda, including conversation with Christians. This kind of activity raised the ire of R. Shlomo Ben Avraham Aderet, The Rashba, against Abulafia; a debate lasting several years ensued between the two, with the Rashba apparently banning Abulafia.

Abulafia suggests a synthesis between the intellectual character of prophecy, according to Maimonides, and other, perhaps “easier,” techniques to reach the same experience, like combining letters, isolation in a special room, preserving a certain rate of breathing – the influence of Indian yoga – and the use of different body parts, apparently a Greek-Christian influence.

Because of the centrality of language in his work, and particularly the Divine names, Abulafia also called his brand of Kabbalah “the Kabbalah of Names.” In a technique he developed, the details of which he described in several writings, he saw a path to personal redemption. In his writings he criticized rabbis who taught establishment and materialistic religion, as well as those who believed in magic. According to Abulafia, his technique was supposed to serve as a kind of replacement for the mitzvot as the ultimate way of reaching God, and even sometimes as leading to complete unification with God as pure intellect. This was an exceptional and open spiritual approach, which brought Abulafia into a clash with both Jews and Christians. In spite of the bans, his writings were preserved and were even translated into Latin and taught during the Italian renaissance by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Some of Abulafia’s books have been translated and published in English, and his teachings have had an influence on many poets in different languages, and even on Umberto Eco’s novel Foucalt’s Pendulum.

Source: Moshe Idel