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Numen 60 (2013) 251279 brill.


Abraham Abulafias Mystical Reading

of the Guide for the Perplexed

Nathan Hofer
Department of Religious Studies, University of Missouri
221B Arts and Science Bldg., Columbia, MO 65211, USA

The Spanish kabbalist Abraham Abulafia (d. 1291) wrote three Hebrew commentaries
on the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides (d. 1204). Abulafias third and final
commentary, Sitrey Torah (The Mysteries of the Torah), is an uncovering and extended
treatment of 36 secrets that he believed to be hidden within the text of the Guide.
In this article I investigate the specificities of Abulafias mystical hermeneutic as he
applies it to the Guide and how this mystical system is made to fit with Maimonides
neoplatonic philosophy. I argue that Abulafias commentary is not actually a mystical
text in and of itself. Rather, he intends the mystical text to be generated within the
mind of the reader, who is meant to join experientially the text of the Guide with Abu-
lafias commentary. The result is a paradoxical disclosure of secrets in which the lin-
guistic mysteries must be disclosed discursively before they can become experiential
mysteries to be disclosed mystically. Such a conception might offfer scholars a new way
of thinking about what constitutes a mystical text as well as problematizing the ways in
which we categorize and analyze the mystical.

Abraham Abulafia, Moses Maimonides, Kabbalah, mysticism, philosophy

Since the linguistic turn in the field of religious studies, many scholars
of religion have moved away from comparative methodologies in favor
of a more self-reflexive scholarship that is particularly attentive to the

1)In writing this article I have benefited greatly from the astute insights and comments
of David Blumenthal and Don Seeman. I would also like to thank the anonymous reader
Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013 DOI: 10.1163/15685276-12341265
252 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

constructed nature of our analytical categories (e.g. Smith 1982; Patton

and Ray 2000). Phenomenological comparison can no longer be deployed
uncritically and the very category of religion itself has become a focal
point of contention (Asad 1993; Masuzawa 1995; McCutcheon 1997).
Along these same lines, studies of mysticism have for the most part
shifted away from the phenomenologically comparative and towards
more historically rooted and contextualized investigations. Beginning
with the pioneering work of scholars like Steven Katz (1978), the so-called
constructivist school, and the work of Michel de Certeau (1986, 1995)
in particular, scholars of mysticism have focused their attention on the
cross-cultural viability of the category itself and the socially and histori-
cally contingent nature of various traditions scholars have chosen, for a
variety of diffferent reasons, to label mystical. Indeed, as Jantzen (1995)
and King (1999) have both cogently argued, the idea of mysticism is
a social construction, and... it has been constructed in diffferent ways
at diffferent times (Jantzen 1995:12). Indeed, not only does the term
qua category have a specifically Christian genealogy that has changed
over time, those semantic changes themselves have been the discursive
sites of struggle for power and authority within the Christian tradition.
Michel de Certeau (1986) has gone so far as to argue that the category
itself was an invention of ecclesiastical elites in late medieval France
designed to domesticate discordant religious voices within the larger
body of orthodox Christianity. The label mystic (much like heretic)
thus has had real social and political repercussions, both for those who
wield it and for those for whom it is deployed. The work of these schol-
ars and others like them has now made the uncritical deployment of
mystic and mystical problematic to say the least. Thus, to continue
to use these categories and retain any kind of analytical utility, scholars
must be explicit about how and why they have chosen to use this par-
ticular category and not another, more local category, as well as evince
an awareness of the baggage the category carries.
One particularly interesting and consequential set of issues con-
nected to this discussion is an anti-mystical, pro-philosophical bias
many historians of religion have inherited from the Enlightenment

who offfered several important corrections. This work would not have been possible
without them and any remaining errors are my own.
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 253

(King 1999:834). Central to this bias are the oppositional categories of

(ir/non-rational) mysticism and (rational) philosophy, with the latter
given more weight epistemologically. The development of this oppo-
sition owes much to post-Kantian epistemology, the privatization of
religion, and the valorization of the rational as a discourse appropri-
ate for the public sphere. Accordingly, philosophers are often seen as
exemplars of logical, deductive, and dialectical thinking who can never
be mystics whose epistemological assumptions and claims can never be
satisfactorily supported by philosophical means; mystical epistemology
is privately inaccessible while philosophical epistemology is publicly
available (King 1999:13). A caveat to the history of this bifurcation is the
concept of philosophical mysticism or intellectual mysticism.2 This
category is an attempt to blur the line between philosophers and mystics
in certain special cases. Thus Ibn Sna (Avicenna, d. 1037) and Maimo-
nides (d. 1204), whom historians generally place in the camp of Muslim
and Jewish philosophers, respectively, are in this case conceptualized as
philosophers whose philosophical systems included a post-philosophi-
cal turn to the mystical. While this is an interesting theoretical move,
it nevertheless preserves the fundamental binary opposition between
philosophy and mysticism because the mystical is superadded to the
philosophical. At any rate, the philosopher/mystic cognitive binary is
ultimately of serious consequence for scholars of religion as it inevitably
frames the ways in which we classify and study diffferent kinds of texts.
In this way, the skills required and methods employed for reading phil-
osophical texts are quite diffferent from those required and employed
for mystical ones. The problem, of course, is the potential violence
that might be done a particular text by reading it as either mystical or
philosophical, without due attention to the fact that the text in question
may not fit easily into either category, particularly given the historical
context of medieval and non-Christian texts.
Given that our contemporary categorization of certain medieval texts
as either mystical or philosophical are often creation[s] of the schol-
ars study (Smith 1982:xi), I would like to bring this discussion to one
medieval Jewish thinker for whom the mystical and the philosophical

2)The earliest use of this term was Madkour 1934 and, subsequently, Gardet 1951. On
more recent uses see Fakhri 1971, Blumenthal 2006, and Lobel 2006.
254 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

were not oppositional at all. Rather, they were one and the same thing
and he produced a type of literature that resists classification as either
philosophical or mystical, or even philosophically mystical. The Span-
ish kabbalist Abraham Abulafia (d. ca. 1291) is generally counted among
the Jewish mystics because of his emphasis on experiential modes of
knowledge acquisition. In addition to his more straightforward hand-
books, Abulafia wrote a number of commentaries on Maimonides
Guide for the Perplexed in which he joins what we might typically call
rational and non-rational, or discursive and intuitive, modes of thought
and experience. Because of the unique way in which Abulafia bridges
these modalities, his writings provide an unusually salient opportunity
to investigate the sometimes arbitrary boundary often posited between
the mystical and the philosophical. In this article I will demonstrate that
for Abulafia there is no opposition or boundary between the two, and
further, that the way he conceptualized the relationship between reli-
gious experience, textual production, and the act of reading might offfer
scholars of religion a new model with which to conceptualize and cat-
egorize what, exactly, constitutes a mystical text. In short, I will argue
that Abulafia envisioned his commentary as the means by which large
textual units gleaned from Maimonides Guide would be re-constituted
in a new form within the mind of the reader, thereby creating an intra-
mental mystical text that was meant to be experienced. This argument
will involve a detailed examination of how Abulafia read and under-
stood Maimonides, how Abulafia used the Guide to create a new text
in the mind of the reader, and how that new text was then meant to
operate on the reader.
Before continuing, I should say a word about what I mean by mysti-
cal here. Historically, there is no such thing as Jewish mysticism. There
is no medieval Hebrew word for mysticism and the usual calque
that kabbalah (lit. tradition or reception) is the closest cultural
translation is not quite accurate. Christian mysticism and Jewish
Kabbalah have very diffferent connotations and histories of linguistic
and conceptual development.3 Furthermore, the core theoretical pos-
sibility inherent in Christian mysticism self-erasure through unio

3)For an instructive comparison, I suggest reading Bernard McGinns (1996) history of

Christian mysticism and Gershom Scholems (1991) study of the development of Kab-
balah side by side.
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 255

mystica via bodily and psychological discipline is nowhere present

in the writings of the medieval kabbalists.4 But this does not mean we
must do away with the term altogether. As Benson Saler (1999) and
others have argued, categories are the fundamental cognitive tools of
the scholar of religion. So long as these tools are deployed critically, self-
reflexively, and with a theoretical purpose, they are still useful. There-
fore, I use the word mystical here as a heuristic device to denote texts
and practices whose objective is to induce a radical shift in subjectiv-
ity by the reader/practitioner. This shift in subjectivity may take many
forms and be deployed for many ends but is marked by new perspec-
tives on the nature of reality. This definition is admittedly broad but it
will serve to highlight what makes Abulafias commentary on the Guide
for the Perplexed diffferent from the text of the Guide itself. To begin,
then, it will be necessary to diffferentiate the mystical Abulafia from
the philosophical Maimonides, if only subsequently to highlight the
collapse of these supposedly stable categories under the weight of Abu-
lafias intense hermeneutic.
One of the more remarkable aspects of The Guide for the Perplexed,
the philosophical magnum opus of Moses Maimonides (d. 1204), is
that he does not present it to his readers as a philosophical treatise.
Indeed, he makes it clear from the outset that the Guide is an extended
commentary on the Hebrew Bible intended to solve a literary prob-
lem: ambiguity and metaphor in the biblical text.5 In the course of his

4)I agree with Moshe Idels (1988a:5961) critique of Gershom Scholem (1946) and
his followers for rejecting outright the possibility of a unitive experience in Kabbalah.
To be sure, there are a number of descriptions of union in terms of devequt by the
Genoese kabbalists, Abulafian kabbalists, and the later asidim. Even within the non-
kabbalistic tradition, Abraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1164) espoused a form of devequt. However,
none of these kabbalists describe this union as an erasure of the self. There is always
a remnant of the self pulling the kabbalist back to the mundane world. This, I would
argue, is intimately tied to the diffferent contexts of development of these traditions:
Christian mystics in monasteries, where the goal was the subjugation of the carnal self,
and kabbalists in study halls, where the goal was the cultivation of knowledge about
the universe and its upkeep.
5)Maimonides specifies in the introduction that his treatise has two purposes:
the first being the clarification of terms appearing in the books of prophecy, and the
second being the clarification of extremely obscure metaphors in the books of the
prophets (Maimonides 1929:2, 1963:56). References to the Guide will be given to Joels
256 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

commentary, Maimonides reworks scripture in order to construct a

philosophically coherent conception of divinity, humanity, and proph-
ecy. He does this by drawing on traditional Jewish exegetical techniques
(Diamond 2002) in concert with Aristotelian philosophy as it was under-
stood in the Islamic tradition (Pines 1963:lxxviiicxxxiv; Ivry 2006).6
Beginning soon after its publication, European readers of the Guide
generally understood Maimonides project to be a thoroughly rational-
ist interpretation of scripture.7 However, many readers in the medieval
Middle East read the Guide as a repository of secrets and representing a
highly intellectualist type of mysticism.8 Indeed, Maimonides own son
and grandsons combined the teachings of the Guide and a Sufi-inspired
form of piety into a seamless whole (Fenton 1997, 2000, 2009).9 One of
the earliest and most prolific purveyors of such a view was Abraham

Judeo-Arabic edition first, followed by Pines English translation. All translations of

Hebrew and Arabic sources in this article are my own unless otherwise noted.
6)In addition to the Rabbinic exegetical and Islamic philosophical traditions, Maimo-
nides was also drawing on the Islamic tradition of tawl, a hermeneutic that assumes
that the text to be interpreted necessarily carries multiple and coded meanings that
can be recovered by a reader with the proper lenses and training (Poonawala 2000).
7)This rationalist understanding, as David Blumenthal 2006:44 has argued, is partially
due to the fact that Maimonides was primarily read in light of the strict Aristotelianism
espoused by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) shortly after publication of the Guide. On Ibn Rushd
as the lens through which medieval Jewish philosophers learned Aristotelian philoso-
phy, see Harvey 2003. Maimonides writings have not only stirred up debates about
their rational vs. non-rational character. There is also the debate about the esoteric
nature of the Guide with Strauss (1952) and his followers on one side and scholars like
Leaman (1990) on the other. Menachem Kellner 1991b has nicely summarized what is at
stake in many of these debates and why Maimonides interpreters continue to argue.
8)This is diffferent from the legend that arose arguing that Maimonides was a kabba-
list, on which see Scholem 1935. Idel (1990, 1991 and 2004) has made the argument that
the Kabbalah itself, as a social and intellectual movement, arose in opposition to what
the early kabbalists saw as the strict rationalism of Maimonides. Wolfson (2004, 2008),
in part responding to Idels claims, has re-examined this relationship in a new light.
9)In addition to Maimonides family and Abraham Abulafia, the Jews of Yemen also
tended to read Maimonides more mystically than philosophically (Blumenthal 1974,
1981). There are some who continue this trend; see the collection of essays in Blumen-
thal 2006 and Faur 1999. For arguments against this reading see Kellner 2006 and the
arguments presented (and addressed) by Blumenthal 2006:3142.
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 257

Abulafia.10 Maimonides philosophy provided Abulafia with the meta-

physical underpinnings for his distinctive mystical program that bears
traces of the great eagle throughout.
Abulafia explicitly synthesized his ideas with those of Maimonides by
writing three commentaries on the Guide, the last of which, Sitrey Torah
(The Mysteries of the Torah), is the most coherently and conceptually
developed in terms of his unique mystical program.11 Within the pages
of this commentary he lays out a highly developed method for achiev-
ing intellectual union with the divine. By subtly weaving the potentially
ordinary intellectual experience of reading the Guide into a contempla-
tive practice designed to collapse the distance between the human and
the divine, Abulafia efffectively created a mystical text from the pages of
the Guide itself. Without attributing any undue intention to Maimo-
nides, it is safe to say that he did not intend the Guide to be read as a
primer on Abulafian Kabbalah. Yet, this is precisely what Abulafia does
by means of his commentary in the Sitrey Torah. Here I will demonstrate
the ways in which Abulafia efffects this reading by describing some of
his literary and exegetical techniques. Furthermore, I will focus on the
specificities of Abulafias mystical epistemology, which, although firmly
rooted in Maimonides metaphysics and cosmology, paradoxically oblit-
erates the Maimonidean text in favor of a radical, mystical subjectivity.

10)Abulafia was born in 1240 in Saragossa, grew up in Tudela, and left Spain sometime
in 1260 to travel to Palestine in search of the mythical river Sambation. He quickly gave
up his quest and returned to Spain via Greece and Italy. In 1260 he began his study
of Sefer Yeirah and other kabbalistic texts and this seems to be the beginning of his
career as a kabbalist. He eventually returned to Italy after 1280 and probably died there
around 1291.
11) The first of these commentaries, Sefer ha-geulah (The Book of Redemption) is extant
in the Hebrew only in poor, fragmentary form but exists in a complete medieval Latin
translation. The second two, ayyey ha-nefesh (The Life of the Soul) and Sitrey Torah
(The Mysteries of the Torah), have only recently been published for the first time. For
Sefer ha-geulah, see Wirszubski 1970. ayyey ha-nefesh and Sitrey Torah were both
recently published by Aaron Barzani and Son (Abulafia 2001b, 2001e). Abulafia was
excommunicated by Ibn Adret around 1290 at the request of the Sicilian community in
which Abulafia was living (Idel 2000). The lasting stigma of this excommunication may
be the reason that Abulafias work was only recently published. However, the fact that
most of his works have been preserved in numerous manuscripts (ayyey ha-nefesh
exists in 11 manuscripts and Sitrey Torah in 29, for example) attests to his relevance and
popularity throughout the medieval period.
258 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

This raises a fascinating question. What, exactly, constitutes the mysti-

cal text here? Is it Abulafias commentary? Is it the Guide? Does it only
exist in the relationship between the two? This essay will address that
question by examining Abulafias mystical hermeneutic, its relationship
to Maimonides reading of the Hebrew Bible, and the subtle interplay
between the two.
Abulafias strong reading of the Maimonidean text can be compared
to Maimonides strong reading of scripture in which he turned the
Hebrew Bible into an Aristotelian text.12 Just as Maimonides literary
project is based upon a philosophical reinterpretation of ambiguous
and obscure anthropomorphic terms and parables in the biblical text,
Abulafias commentary is rooted in a mystical reinterpretation of those
same terms as they appear in the Maimonidean text. These terms, the
true meanings of which are hidden in the Guide and revealed by Abu-
lafia, perform double duty for Abulafia. First, they provide him with a
conceptual point from which to begin a discussion of some aspect of his
mystical project. Second, and because they are ostensibly found within
the Maimonidean corpus, they function as epistemological proofs that
his mystical program has solid metaphysical underpinnings. However,
rather than rooting out anthropomorphisms, the object of Abulafias
commentary is the revealing of 36 secrets (sodot) he sees hidden through-
out the Guide.13 Each secret is a conglomeration of ideas embodied by
a single Hebrew term. Rather than succinct mystical insights into the
true nature of reality or explicit and detailed instructions for a via mys-
tica that one typically finds in mystical tracts, each of Abulafias sodot
are difffuse, nebulous networks of concepts that must be drawn together
from a variety of sources to glean knowledge about a particular topic.

12)By Aristotelian I mean the neoplatonic Aristotle of the Muslim philosophers.

13)One of the questions surrounding these secrets is where the number of thirty-six
came from. Idel 1998:311313 argues that Abulafia may well have been part of a larger
chain of transmission of thirty-six secrets surrounding the Guide. However, if this were
the case one would expect to see evidence of such a chain in other commentaries or at
least a mention in some work of Kabbalah. Abulafia is adamant that these mysteries are
hidden within the Guide, and not of his own creation: the intention of [Maimonides]
interpretation and the truth of its existence is the revelation of its hidden matters to the
enlightened, and within them a few of the secrets of the Torah (sitrey torah), according
to our tradition, are revealed as well. Therefore, this commentary is called by the name
Sitrey Torah (Abulafia 2001e:1213).
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 259

These conceptual networks are culled from the Guide, from Abulafias
mystical thought, from rabbinic tradition and from the Sefer Yeirah, or
Book of Creation.14 One can not simply sit down and read the commen-
tary. Abulafias ideas must be pieced together, intertextually, from the
books numerous chapters and compared with Maimonides Guide. This
is similar to the way in which Maimonides requires his readers to piece
together his teachings about a particular topic from multiple chapters
in the Guide, while paying close attention to the biblical texts under
This strategy of disclosure what I would call a triple lexicogra-
phy demands a great deal from the reader: the adept must under-
stand (1) the biblical context of a particular term, (2) Maimonides
philosophical explanation of said term, and (3) Abulafias re-working
of that explanation. This triple lexicography is embedded in a frame-
work in which the disclosure of the secrets is both the means and end
of Abulafias hermeneutical project. There is, in other words, a dialecti-
cal relationship between the revelation of these secrets and their use
as exegetical tools by the reader. The reader is encouraged not only to
discover the secrets of the Guide but also to use these secrets to attain
mystical experience and understanding. The secrets of the Guide will
disclose the mystical path to the reader, but the reality and true content
of the secrets can only be fully understood in light of the experience
that is a result of this path. Thus, the secrets themselves can only be
revealed experientially. For Abulafia, the Guide (read properly) is not a
repository of conceptual content but actually one part of a mechanism
for achieving radically new states of experience and subjectivity.
Abulafias relationship to Maimonides and his role in disseminating
the Guide in Europe have been amply documented (Idel 1998:289329,
2011:3134). However, the fact that Abulafia actually incorporated the
Guide into a mystical practice has not been explored in any detail.
Therefore, I will focus here on the literary and contemplative strategies
Abulafia used to recast the Guide by focusing on two of his secrets in
detail. I examine where he finds these secrets, how he explains their

14)Sefer Yeirah is an early Jewish work on the relationship of numbers, the Hebrew
alphabet, and creation. Scholem 1978:2628 dates the work to between the third and
sixth centuries CE. English translations and commentaries can be found in Blumenthal
1978:1546 and Kaplan 1997.
260 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

plain meaning, and how he points to their mystical content. At the

very heart of this commentarial project lies Abulafias distinctive episte-
mology and mystical system, which are rooted in a unique conception
of the Hebrew alphabet.15
Abulafia called his system kabbalat ha-shemot (the tradition of names)
or ha-kabbalah ha-nevuit (the prophetic tradition).16 At its core lies the
belief that the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet have an onto-
logical significance that encompasses all the languages of the nations.
This idea, rooted in his early study of the Sefer Yeirah, holds that these
twenty-two letters are the building blocks of existence used by God to
create the universe.17 The Hebrew name of an object is, therefore, not
only a conventional sign by which humans subjectively communicate
with one another, but also an objective marker of that objects onto-

15)Abulafias mystical thought is most readily accessible in English in a series of books

devoted to him by Moshe Idel (1988b, 1988c, 1988d).
16)There is some question about how Abulafia saw himself in relation to his con-
temporaries. Did he consider himself a part of a larger community of kabbalists that
included those circles that produced the Zohar? Or did he see himself advocating a
break with that tradition? These questions have generally turned on the role of the
sefirot in Abulafias own system of prophetic Kabbalah. Wolfson 2000b:9499 summa-
rized these issues and the positions of modern scholars on them before reopening the
question himself. The only hint Abulafia himself provides is his letter of self-defense
sent to Yehuda Salomon ca. 12801290, Ve-zot li-yehudah (And This is for Yehudah), in
which he diffferentiates between kabbalat ha-sefirot and his system, kabbalat ha-shemot
(Jellinek 1853). While some have taken this to be a hard and fast distinction, I agree
with Wolfson that Abulafia probably envisioned his system of Kabbalah as part of the
larger universe of esoteric traditions and that the distinction serves a polemical func-
tion. He refers to each type of Kabbalah as a eleq (a part of the whole) and argues
that both parts are hidden from the majority of rabbinic scholars (neelamim me-rov
ha-akhamim). He then goes on to say that there is no doubt that the first part is prior
to the second in terms of when it is studied, and the second is at a higher level than
the first (Jellenik 1853:1516). This would indicate that Abulafia saw knowledge of the
system of sefirot (however he conceptualized them) as a precursor to his own system.
17)Abulafia wrote three commentaries on Sefer Yeirah that I am aware of: Gan naul
(Abulafia 2001a), Oar eden ganuz (Abulafia 2001d), and Perush sefer yeirah (Abula-
fia 1984). Tellingly, these are not included in traditional editions of the Sefer Yeirah
that contain multiple medieval commentaries. Sefer yeirah ha-shalem (The Complete
Sefer Yeirah), for example, contains the commentaries of eleven medieval scholars
including Rashi, Saadya Gaon, and Nachmanides. Abulafia is nowhere to be found in
its pages.
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 261

logical nature. The epistemological consequence of this presumption is

that one may gain intellectual insight into the fundamental nature of an
object or concept by meditating on the letters of its Hebrew name and
then manipulating those letters. Abulafia leverages this construct into
a mystical system by asserting that contemplating particularly powerful
words like the shem ha-meforash (the explicit name of God, Y-H-V-H)
will open the mystics mind to the influx of divine overflow (ha-shefa
ha-elohit). This overflow joins the human and divine intellects in a con-
junction that Abulafia calls devequt, or cleaving.18
It is in his discussion of intellectual cleaving that Abulafia is espe-
cially indebted to the philosophical cosmology articulated by Maimo-
nides, particularly his discussion concerning the mechanics of prophecy
contained in Part II of the Guide. Abulafia argues that the permutation
of powerful, religiously charged words moves the human intellect from
potentiality to activation, which allows it access to the Active Intellect
(ha-sekhel ha-poel). This is neoplatonic-Maimonidean terminology
yoked to an Abulafian epistemology.19 The moment of divine influx
induces a radical shift in subjectivity that we might call the mystical
experience. God is no longer the object of cognition but of ecstatic
experience, which Abulafia describes as becoming the object of Gods

And God, may He be blessed, caused that which He knew [the mystic] to be
capable of receiving His goodness to flow upon him. He taught him His ways
one by one according to Moses power, which was the power of flesh and blood,
until He caused his intellect to go from in potentia to in actu (min ha-koa el
ha-poal) little by little, and returned him to the Divine Intellect (ha-poel ha-elohi)
(Abulafia 2001e:11).

Abulafia also describes this experience of devequt in his most detailed

manual of mystical experience, ayyey ha-olam ha-ba (Life in the World
to Come):

18)An extended discussion of the development and varieties of devequt is in Idel

19)Idel 2005:144151 has argued convincingly that Abulafia identified the Active Intel-
lect with the Torah itself; further strengthening the connection between logos, intel-
lect, knowledge, and experience.
262 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

The more the sublime intellective flow is strengthened within you, the more your
external and internal organs become weakened, and your body begins to tremble
greatly and mightily, until you think that you shall surely die at that time, for your
soul will become separated from your body out of the great joy in attaining and
knowing what you have known (Idel 1988c:41).

It is clear from these two passages that the mystical experience for
Abulafia is based upon intellectual cognition first and foremost and is
firmly rooted in the neoplatonic understanding of intellect espoused by
In Sitrey Torah, Abulafia deploys seven types of exegetical-noetic
tools that he calls Torah proofs (mofetim toriim) to disclose the 36
secrets of the Guide.21 Each of these seven proofs is deployed, either in
isolation or in combination with others, to demonstrate the veracity of a
particular secret that Abulafia is explaining. More simply, by deploying
these linguistic tools Abulafia generates new intellectual and experien-
tial content from old words. These seven Torah proofs are:

1.shituf shemot Joining separate words together to form new

2.mashlim otiot Completing the letters of one word to make a
new word.
3.eyruf otiot Rearranging the letters of one word to form a new
4.roshey teyvot and sofey teyvot Creating new words from the first
and/or last letters of other words.
5.iluf otiot Exchanging the letters of several words to make new
6.noeriqon Each letter of a word stands for another word; thus a
word becomes a sentence.

20)The connection between Maimonides cosmology and Abulafian metaphysics is

explored in more detail in Blumenthal 1982:583.
21)I use the term exegetical-noetic to signify that by performing these exegetical
actions intra-mentally, the adept will actually experience the word and its interpre-
tation, i.e., the experience of manipulation opens the intellect to the influx from the
Active Intellect and the adept will experientially learn the meaning and essence of that
word. These Torah proofs are discussed in more detail in Idel 1988b.
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 263

7.gemariot Two words are conceptually equivalent if they are

numerically equal.

By using these Torah proofs in concert with the study of the Guide the
reader will gain two types of knowledge. First, the plain text of the
Guide provides essential metaphysical knowledge of the structure of
the universe and of the human intellect that underlies the mechanics
of the mystical experience. Second, by actually practicing and perform-
ing these Torah proofs while simultaneously studying the Guide, the
adept is trained in the skills of letter manipulation that are essential for
Abulafias mystical path. Sitrey Torah is thus more than a commentary
that explicates esoteric content from the Guide. It is actually a primer
containing everything the adept needs to know to begin the mystical
journey, including both theoretical and practical knowledge. In other
words, Abulafia intends his reader to read the Guide as a contemplative
exercise. The object of contemplation, however, is neither the primer
nor the Guide, it is the 36 secrets generated between the texts and within
the mind of the reader. This is a complicated process. In order to dem-
onstrate how these exegetical-noetic tools function in this way I will
turn to two specific examples.

Intellect and Imagination

The first secret that Abulafia takes up, The Secret of Form and Likeness
(sod elem u-demut), is drawn from the beginning chapter of the Guide,
where Maimonides treats these same terms (1929:1415, 1963:2123).
In the first chapter of Part I of the Guide, Maimonides undertakes to
describe the proper understanding of the biblical terms elem (form) and
demut (likeness), which he argues are problematic because they imply
divine corporeality. He held that those who interpreted Genesis 1:26
literally, Let us make man in our form (be-almenu) and according to
our likeness (ci-demutenu), were guilty of pure anthropomorphism
(al-tajsm al-ma) (1929:14, 1963:21). For Maimonides, the true mean-
ing of elem is natural form or typological form, which is to say that
which represents the essence of a thing. What distinguishes human
beings from all other created things is the power of intellect. Thus, when
the Bible declares that humankind was created in the form of God it
264 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

means that human beings and God share the characteristic of intellect,
aql, even if these respective intellects are of very diffferent orders.22 As
for demut, Maimonides argues that its meaning is akin to the Arabic
verb shabaha, to be similar, and refers to abstract, not physical, simi-
larity. The likeness between humans and God is the ability to exercise
their intellect and thus implies no physical resemblance.23 Genesis 1:26,
Let us make man in our form, and according to our likeness, can now
be understood properly to mean, Let us endow man with our intellect,
so that he might think like us.24 Maimonides method here is clear: he
locates biblical terms that are ambiguous and that might lead to anthro-
pomorphic errors, he corrects this error by explaining their philosophi-
cal meaning, and the whole verse is re-read to generate the proper
meaning of the biblical text.
In his commentary on this chapter, Abulafia informs his readers that
in order to truly understand the secret, they must supplement their study
of Guide I:1 with a number of other chapters from the Guide, namely
chapters 2, 7, 41, 46, 56, 68, 69, and 72 of part I.25 Abulafia does not
explain why this is necessary nor does he direct his reader to anything
in particular in those chapters; he merely mentions them and says noth-
ing further on the subject. However, the reason he does so will become

22)In this neoplatonic system, human intellect is the product of divine emanations
proceeding from the Active Intellect, through the spheres of existence, and into the
human soul. On this subject in medieval Islamic philosophy in general see Davidson
1992. On Maimonides particular views of the intellect and its relationship to the soul,
see Altmann 1987.
23)While Maimonides says here that they are similar, he insists that this similarity
only seems so at first glance (al bdi al-ray); there is actually no real similarity at all
between God and human beings. This is a point to which Maimonides will return over
and over again in the Guide.
24)Of course, Maimonides would cringe at the use of us and our, but I will retain it
for the sake of comparison with the original.
25)There is a problem with Abulafias system of numbering the chapters of the Guide.
At the beginning of the commentary he lists all the chapters of the Guide and the first
couple of words of each so that his readers would be able to find their way around. His
chapters conform to our current edition of the Guide except for I:27, which he either
did not have or (as is more likely) was a part of chapter 26. Thus, when Abulafia directs
his readers to I:30, it is actually I:31 in our editions, I:31 is I:32 and so on. This only occurs
in the first of the three parts of the Guide and I have compensated for it; when I men-
tion a chapter it will refer to the chapters as we currently know them.
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 265

clear after examining his commentary. Abulafia begins his exposition

of the secret with a concise paraphrase of Maimonides understanding
of the term elem, which is itself taken almost word-for-word from Ibn
Tibbons Hebrew translation of the Guide (Abulafia 2001e:20).26 After
his summary, Abulafia introduces the possibility of human intellectual
union with the Active Intellect by means of the mutual cognition of the
kabbalist and God by stating that [the human] elem returns to be His
name, recited like the name of his Lord, which is the special name for
the Active Intellect: elem with elem (Abulafia 2001e:20).27 This may
seem like a non-sequitur given that it follows his paraphrase of Mai-
monides. But upon closer inspection it seems that Abulafia is deriv-
ing his reading from Genesis 1:27, God created man in His own image
(be-almo), in the image of God (be-elem elohim) He created him. The
double use of elem in this verse leads Abulafia to the conclusion that
there are actually two elems being discussed: the intellects of God and
human beings. Thus, when Genesis (read through Maimonides and then
through Abulafia) is read correctly, the reader should understand that
the elem (Active Intellect) of God and the elem (intellect) of human
beings are not only the same but can be combined in the Active Intel-
lect. Read in this way, Genesis 1:27 becomes God endowed Adam with
human intellect (elem) by means of His intellect (elem). Furthermore,
given that the human elem is a product of the divine, Abulafia can also
argue that the double use of elem in verse 27 testifies that these two
are one thing without separation (devar ead bilti mitaleq) (Abulafia
2001e:21). This is where one begins to see Abulafias triple lexicography
in action. Abulafia expects the reader to understand the biblical context
of these terms, Maimonides philosophical reading, and Abulafias syn-
thesis of them both.

26)Curiously, Abulafia mentions that the human elem is also the name of the soul
(ha-nefesh) that remains after death, an idea that is not found in the Maimonidean
text. It seems that Abulafia is eliding Maimonides remarks about elem and his doc-
trine of the soul (rooted in the thought of al-Frb) that it is indivisible but comprised
of five faculties, of which intellect is the most important and that which survives death.
For more on this, see Davidson 1963.
27)This is surely a hint to the fact that the special name of the Active Intellect is
the shem ha-meforash, which is the most powerful word to be manipulated by the
266 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

Abulafias discussion of demut intensifies this hermeneutic. While

Maimonides understood demut to indicate the similarity but not
equivalence of the human and divine intellects, Abulafia reads
demut quite diffferently. He states, obscurely, that elem is the form
of the intellect and demut is the imagination of knowledge (dimyon
daat), because the intellect and the imagination are known to be
elem and demut (Abulafia 2001e:21). How does Abulafia arrive at this
equation: intellect and imagination = elem and demut? The answer
lies in an ingenious use of a gemaria, the seventh of his Torah proofs
mentioned above. In Hebrew, the phrase the intellect and the imagi-
nation are known ( ) numerically equals 616, and
the phrase form and likeness ( ) also equals 616. By means
of one of his Torah proofs, Abulafia is thus able to generate new mean-
ing for the biblical text, and even more surprising, new meaning for the
Guide as well. Thus, through a complex intertextual reading of Genesis,
Maimonides, and a gemaria, Abulafia is able to assert that elem is the
intellect (as Maimonides held) but also that demut is human imagi-
nation, something that Maimonides pointedly did not say. The key
to understanding what Abulafia is doing with the Maimonidean text
hinges on his reading of the word dimyon. But again, he does not clearly
define it in this chapter. Elsewhere, he hints that dimyon refers to what
medieval philosophers knew as the imaginative faculty, which Abulafia
calls the imagination of knowledge (dimyon daat).28 But why does he
want to claim that elem and demut refer to intellect and imagination?
The key is prophecy, which, it should be remembered, was one of the
names Abulafia gave his system (ha-kabbalah ha-nevuit). Abulafia cer-
tainly knew that Maimonides held the two requirements of a prophet to
be highly developed imaginative and rational faculties (1929:253256,
1963:360363). Abulafia seems to hint, without going into detail, that
the adept will need to develop both mental faculties intellect and
imagination, elem and demut in order to access the Active Intellect
and achieve devequt, or prophecy.

28)Throughout this commentary, Abulafia delineates the diffference in function

between the rational and imaginative powers of the soul and refers to the imagination
as dimyon. A particularly salient example of this bifurcation is discussed in his treat-
ment of the Secret of Experience (Abulafia 2001e:179180).
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 267

At this point it should be clear to his readers that the secret of elem
and demut intellect and imagination are the constituent compo-
nents of prophetic experience. But what about the extra chapters from
the Guide Abulafia indicated at the beginning of this chapter? The extra
chapters, when read in light of Abulafias exposition of the secret, pro-
vide the necessary material for an esoteric discussion of the mechan-
ics of prophecy, which can also be read as a primer for the attainment
of prophecy by human beings. If one reads all of the extra chapters
together, along with Abulafias discussion, the following philosophical-
mystical narrative can be discerned: While no actual similarities exist
between the attributes of humans and those ascribed to God (Guide
I:56), humans do have an actual connection to deity by means of the
Active Intellect and the rational soul, which is another word for the
human intellect (Guide I:41). Prophecy is not a matter of physical speech
between God and humans (Guide I:46) but must be described as a pro-
cess of the Active Intellect which is always in actu (Guide I:68)
being the direct cause of everything that happens in the universe (Guide
I:69). This includes the conveyance of knowledge during prophecy
by means of the proximate cause of the spheres (Guide I:69 and 72).29
I should stress that Abulafia does not by any means present this mate-
rial in a straightforward manner. He merely indicates the chapter
numbers and the reader is expected to piece this together after having
read and understood the true (mystical) meaning of the secret of elem
and demut.
The significance of what Abulafia is doing with the Maimonidean
text is now much clearer. As an astute reader of the Guide, he gives a
concise and straightforward introduction to the first chapter, while
pointing the reader to other chapters in the Guide that will be necessary
to understand the full import of what he is saying. He then immediately
introduces Torah proofs (in this case, gemaria) as a means of demon-
strating the veracity of his claims. However, these Torah proofs are not
merely a kind of epistemological check. They do perform this function,
but my contention is that these are also introduced here in order to
begin training the adepts mental faculties. By using the Torah proofs

29)The two chapters not mentioned here, I:2 and I:7, are mentioned in this sod but in
connection with something not directly related to the discussion here.
268 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

while reading the Guide, from the very beginning, the reader will begin
to form an understanding of the metaphysical structures underlying
the prophetic experience, the means by which the experience can be
achieved, and, most importantly, practical exercises designed for that
end. By requiring the reader to perform the Torah proofs, Abulafia col-
lapses the distance between his mystical system and Maimonides phil-
osophical project, thereby setting the stage for the mystical experience
that will truly reveal Maimonides secrets. One begins to see here how
typical conceptualizations of mystical and philosophical begin to
break down. In his chapter on the Secret of Prophecy (sod ha-nevuah),
Abulafia blurs this line further and details explicit exercises to be per-
formed in the quest for the prophetic experience, understood in a neo-
platonic, philosophical vein.

The Prophetic Experience

Abulafias presentation of the sod ha-nevuah is dependent upon the
readers understanding of what he calls the pirqey ha-nevuah, the
chapters on prophecy, found in chapters 32 through 48 of Part II of
the Guide (1929:253294, 1963:360412). In these chapters, Maimonides
constructs a naturalistic and universalistic understanding of prophecy
rooted in Islamic thought and indebted to that of al-Frb in particular.30
Maimonides describes prophecy as an emanation that flows from God
by means of the Active Intellect to the rational faculty first, then to the
imaginative faculty after that. This is the highest level of humanity and
the ultimate in perfection... and this matter is not possible for abso-
lutely every person... for the imaginative faculty is rooted in ones natu-
ral disposition (1929:260, 1963:369).31 Thus, for Maimonides, prophecy

30)Al-Frbs conception of prophecy and dreams can be found in his treatise, The
Opinions of the People of the Perfect City (al-Frb 2002:108116). There is a debate about
whether or not Maimonides conception of prophecy was actually universalistic (i.e.,
possible for Jews as well as non-Jews) or whether it was restricted to Jews only. I tend
to agree with Kellners (1991a:2629 and 2006:257259) assessment that it was indeed
universalistic. For the particularistic view, see H. A. Wolfson 1942 and Sheilat 1999.
31)In Guide I:15 and II:10, Maimonides likens this chain of emanation and the act of
intellection therein to Jacobs vision of the ladder (Gen. 28:12). The ladder described
in the biblical account, And behold, there was a ladder standing on the earth, whose
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 269

is limited to those individuals who are born with a highly developed

imaginative faculty, have completed their advanced education, and are
perfected in their moral behaviors.32 Maimonides further restricts the
list of potential prophets by asserting that one who is ready for [proph-
ecy] might still not prophesy because of the divine will... God gives
prophecy to whom he wants, when he wants.33 Human beings can only
be in a prophetic mode by means of Gods initiation of the prophetic
moment. This is the same terminology used by al-Frb to describe
prophecy. However, Maimonides difffers from al-Frb in one crucial
respect. Maimonides insists that God can block prophecy if He so wills.34
I will return to this point, but first it will be instructive to detail what
Abulafia does with this material.
In his explication of the Secret of Prophecy, Abulafia does not explic-
itly cite any of Maimonides writings on the subject.35 Difffering from
his treatment of elem and demut, Abulafia here expects his reader to
understand Maimonides position on prophecy without Abulafias
summary. As Abulafia begins his treatment of the secret, one immedi-
ately notes that, contra Maimonides, the prophetic experience may be

top reached the heavens, represents the metaphysical link in the chain of existence.
In I:15 in particular, Maimonides is explicit about the fact that the act of ascending and
descending on the ladder is the activity of prophecy.
32)This is true of Maimonides conception of all the prophets except for Moses, who
prophesied by means of intellect alone; his experience was not mediated by the imagi-
native faculty. See Guide II: 3437 (1929:258265, 1963:366375).
33)Altmann 1978:8, making a subtle yet precise distinction, argues that Maimonides
intends that primordial divine wisdom determines prophecy, not divine will.
34)For al-Frb 2002:114116, the prophetic experience is only limited to those with
a natural capability. God does not interfere in the process; see chapter 25, Statement
Concerning Prophecy and Vision of the King. My understanding of Maimonides con-
ception follows the reading of Warren Harvey 1981, which is distinct from the readings
of H. A. Wolfson 1942, Davidson 1979, and Kaplan 1977.
35)Rather than paraphrasing Maimonides, Abulafia begins his discussion with a pref-
ace about the nature of prophecy and prophets, followed by an explication of Abulafias
understanding of prophecy. The preface is interesting for what it reveals about Abula-
fias self-understanding not only as a mystic, but as a prophet. Abulafia writes that all
the prophets, by nature of being a prophet, were compelled to say what they said and
to write what they wrote (Abulafia 2001e:137). I read these introductory remarks as
Abulafias apologia for why he is putting to paper the secrets of prophecy and the meth-
ods by which it can be obtained.
270 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

initiated by human beings. Specifically, one might commence proph-

ecy by means of a linguistic act, which he calls an interior utterance
(dibbur penimi).36 For Abulafia, this inner utterance must be under-
stood as the act of manipulating Hebrew letters of various words within
the human intellect. It is important to note that it is not necessarily the
Hebrew language that is essential here, but the Hebrew letters. Indeed,
Abulafia often uses gemariot and eyrufim based upon Greek or Latin
words written in Hebrew characters.37 While the Hebrew language is
indeed holy, it is the actual letters that are imbued with divine power.
By meditating upon them, the intellect is activated and rendered capa-
ble of receiving the divine influx. This begins a chain reaction in which
the conscious permutation of Hebrew letters activates the human intel-
lect, which allows the Active Intellect to overflow upon the imaginative
faculty (al ha-koa ha-dimyoni), which flows to the emotional faculty
(ha-mitorer), which flows to the sensory faculty (he-hargashi), and from
there to the representational faculty (ha-iyuri), at which point the con-
tent of prophetic revelation can be mentally represented, externalized,
and expressed linguistically. This chain reaction then proceeds back-
wards, up the chain of faculties, to the Active Intellect. This movement
of the human intellect back to its divine source is what makes devequt
possible: and the one [human intellect] and the other [the Active Intel-
lect] will be one thing (Abulafia 2001e:138). Maimonides and Abula-
fias conceptions of prophecy are nearly identical. The crucial diffference
between the two is that Maimonides restricts prophecy to those with
an innate imaginative faculty and whom God does not prevent from
prophesying, and Abulafia has opened up a space for all human beings
to prophesy if they are able and willing to develop the discipline neces-
sary to do so.38 Prophecy is therefore not a state in which imagination

36)This interior utterance is created by means of the seventy languages with the 22
holy letters, all of which are permutated in the heart, by using [the Torah proof] of let-
ter permutation, which is in potentia in terms of the rational soul and in actu in terms
of the Active Intellect (Abulafia 2001e:138).
37)As Wolfson 2000a:62 points out, this complex of thought is rooted in Abulafias
conception that the seventy-two human languages are actually contained within the
language of God, which is Hebrew. On this topic see also Idel 1988b:811.
38)Abulafia writes that the adept will be ready for prophecy, when you know for your-
self that good morals have been absolutely perfected in you... and you know that you
are perfect in the matters of God (middot ha-shem), which are known to be the means
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 271

and intellect are receptive (as in Maimonides), but prophecy is initi-

ated by the adept and results in a state in which the Active Intellect
will cleave to the intellect of the adept until the one and the other will
be one thing or as he said in the secret of elem and demut, one thing
without separation.
Abulafias claim that prophecy/devequt may be initiated by the adept
is the sine qua non of his thought that I argue qualifies it as mystical. The
power to transcend the gulf separating humanity and divinity is in the
hands (or mind) of the adept, which results in a radical shift in subjec-
tivity marked by new perspectives on the nature of reality. Given this
aim, it is not surprising that it is here that Abulafia introduces exercises
designed to train the reader for prophecy. One such exercise is a free
associative gemaria. For example, one should begin with the phrase
the letters of holiness () , which numerically equals
1,232. The reader then proceeds to freely associate any other letters
and phrases that also add up to 1,232. For instance, Abulafia provides
the example of the phrase studying the commandments of Torah
() , which in Hebrew is equal to 1,232. Then, and by use
of permutation, becomes and the whole phrase
may then be rearranged to read : intellect, imagina-
tion, and Torah. Note that if one has not understood the first secret
of the commentary, elem u-demut, this number/letter combination
would not make any sense. One must understand before beginning this
chapter that, for Abulafia, elem refers to the intellect and demut to the
imagination. Thus, the letters of holiness ( ) with which
he began have literally become intellect, imagination, and Torah
( ) by means of studying the commandments of the
Torah () . This specific move might be understood in
a number of ways. Most importantly, it seems that he intends here that
studying the Torah by means of permutation of the Hebrew letters (the
letters of holiness) is an activity made possible by means of the intel-
lect (the elem) and the imagination (demut). Furthermore, that the
human intellect, the Active Intellect, and the Torah are all essentially

by which the world is continually governed, and your thought pursues your intellect so
that they will be similar to it (the Active Intellect?), always according to your ability.
And you know with your intellect that the non-essential powers have been removed,
and all of your intention is toward the God of heaven (Abulafia 2001e:138139).
272 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

one and the same during devequt, or prophecy, a configuration that sup-
ports Idels (2005:144155) contention that Abulafia conceived of the
Torah and Active Intellect as the same thing. Having mastered this skill
of permutation, Abulafia instructs the adept to practice this technique
by skipping around and calculating (tidalleg ve-tishov) various per-
mutations and gemariot.39
Another, more complicated exercise utilizes the Torah proof of
mashlim otiot (completing the letters). The adept should begin with a
phrase; his example is the holy language () . Now, beginning
with the letter lamed, the adept should turn each letter into two letters
by means of numerical equivalences. Thus, will become "because
they both equal thirty. The initial phrase can now be rearranged
with the substitution of and for the to read , the
presence of the Holy. As practice for this method Abulafia prescribes
working backward through the entire alphabet in four letter blocks.
Thus, starting with ( the last four letters of the Hebrew alpha-
bet), one should begin with the , which equals 400, and turn it into
",", ", etc., each of which is a combination that yields a
total of 400. This should be done for the entire alphabet, in blocks of
four letters at a time, back and forth until the adept can literally do it
without thinking. But why does Abulafia introduce these exercises in
this chapter on prophecy? Abulafia states very clearly at the end of this
chapter that:

this is the way, the mysteries of which I have revealed to you, and it is a straight
path by which are taught the sitrey torah and by which the thought of the enlight-
ened is guided to the knowledge of God, from Whom the overflow is received by
means of the 22 letters (Abulafia 2001e:144).

This passage, I would argue, is the key to the entire commentary. First,
by this is the way i.e. the manipulation of letters by which are
taught the sitrey torah, Abulafia clearly intends that the manipulation

39)This skipping around and calculating would take years of training as it requires
an amazing degree of concentration, a huge storehouse of Hebrew words and phrases,
and an acute mathematical skill that would allow the easy movement between words,
letters, and numbers. Abulafia expected his students to be able to do these forwards,
backwards, inside-out, and all as rapidly as possible.
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 273

of letters is the only way to learn the secrets of the Torah embedded
within the pages of the Guide for the Perplexed. Second, he says that the
manipulation of letters is also how the enlightened are guided to God
and receive the divine influx, i.e., prophecy. In other words, studying
the Guide and its secrets is essential preparation for the mystical expe-
rience, but true knowledge of the secrets can only be understood after
experiencing conjunction with the Active Intellect. The fact that study
of the Guide, mystical experience, and knowledge of the secrets are
dialectically linked leads me to the conclusion that Abulafias 36 sodot
are both the means and the result of his mystical hermeneutic. The only
piece of information that Abulafia does not include here and it is a
crucial piece is that it is only by permuting and meditating upon the
actual names of God (like the explicit name Y-H-V-H) that the adept will
tread the paths of prophecy.40

If one looks back at what Abulafia has done with the Maimonidean text,
the parallels with Maimonides own interpretive project are striking and
worthy of note. Both authors deploy a strategy of concealment to reveal
their respective doctrines, hiding their teachings in plain sight.41 Both
authors focus their commentaries on explicating certain biblical words
and concepts, the true meaning of which will open up the authors proj-
ect for the reader. Most importantly, they both attempt to re-work an
earlier text and incorporate it into their own systems. In doing so they
both do a certain amount of violence to the text they are working with.
If we move beyond similarities however, and focus more precisely on
the way these two authors are re-working texts, the diffferences are star-
tling. Maimonides discursive reading does not demand an experiential
component from the reader the way Abulafia does. This is ultimately

40)Abulafia 2001e:7486 hints at this information a little more explicitly in the Secret
of the Proper Noun (sod shem eem).
41)Idel 1998 and Wolfson 2000a have described the very diffferent types of secrecy
deployed by Maimonides and Nachmanides that are here combined by Abulafia. For
Maimonides, secrets are secret because the masses may not be ready for them and they
are thus hidden within the text. For Nachmanides, secrets are secret because they are
literally incommunicable and thus can not be conveyed in writing.
274 N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279

why we might categorize the Guide as a philosophical text, not a mysti-

cal one. Indeed, Maimonides primary concern is to offfer a corrective to
misunderstandings of the biblical text, bringing it into alignment with
the neoplatonic physics and metaphysics of his day, while neverthe-
less leaving the text itself intact. The efffect is one in which the reader is
able to read Maimonides biblical text by substituting correct mean-
ing where and when appropriate. The reader, in a sense, looks through
Maimonides at the biblical text in order to reconstruct its true meaning.
Abulafias project is fundamentally diffferent.
If Maimonides exhibited a certain violence towards the biblical text,
Abulafia goes further by absolutely pulverizing and atomizing it. Abula-
fias Torah proofs are intra-mental speech acts that reduce language to
discrete alpha-numeric units that can be taken apart and re-constituted
into a new text. When these Torah proofs are brought to bear on Mai-
monides and the biblical text, the reader does not look through Abulafia
at the Maimonidean text and then at the biblical text, as one might sus-
pect. Rather, one must reconstruct a completely new text from the bits
of biblical and Maimonidean language that Abulafia has torn apart. This
cryptological reading is completely diffferent from the Maimonidean
reading of the biblical text and offfers up intriguing possibilities for con-
ceptualizing the nature and bounds of mystical texts. While one might
consider Sitrey Torah itself a mystical commentary in the sense that it
purports to reveal that which is hidden, there is another mystical text
here that is generated in the mind of the reader from the commentary
and the text of the Guide.
At this point, I can return to the question I posed at the outset of
this essay: Where is the mystical text here? The Guide for the Perplexed
itself, read without Abulafias commentary, is certainly not mystical
in the sense I am using it here. Likewise, the commentary without the
actual text of the Guide in front of the reader is almost useless (actually
incomprehensible) as a mystical guide. I would add that without the
text of the Hebrew Bible in mind as well, the whole Abulafian process
of reading becomes impossible. Abulafias hermeneutic thus demands
the mental juggling of biblical, Maimonidean, and Abulafian texts in the
mind of the reader. This is what I have called his triple lexicography. In
addition, the reader must be able to perform the complicated mental
N. Hofer / Numen 60 (2013) 251279 275

feats of letter manipulation demanded by his Torah proofs while study-

ing the texts of the commentary and the Guide. The key to Abulafias
reading as a mystical technique is that the human intellect and
Active Intellect in turn, will only be activated by manipulating particu-
larly powerful letters like the explicit name of God. Given that these
textual manipulations while drawn from the biblical, Maimonidean,
and Abulafian texts occur intra-mentally within the reader, the actual
mystical text only exists, in efffect, within the mind of the reader. The
necessary information is present in both the Guide and the commentary
together, yet it is not completely in either one or even both. This is one
of the many paradoxes that lie at the center of Abulafias system: the
36 secrets of the Guide can only really be experientially learned after
they have been learned discursively. But this discursive knowledge is
impossible without the experiential component. The whole mystical
system is rooted in Maimonides neoplatonic cosmology found in the
Guide, the text of which is then obliterated to make space for Abulafias
mystical epistemology.
For Abulafias complicated mystical hermeneutic, two senses of the
word mystical are operational. On one hand, there is an unveiling of
reality in which one text reveals reality by means of a second. On the
other hand, this unveiling of reality is combined with an experiential
component that might be learned and taught to others. By loosening the
strictures of the mystical-philosophical binary and approaching them
instead from the Abulafian perspective, the categories are reinvigorated
and open up new possibilities for thinking about and categorizing texts.
In this case, we have a paradoxical disclosure of secrets in which the lin-
guistic mysteries must be disclosed discursively before they can become
experiential mysteries to be disclosed mystically. The mystical text is
formed within the intellect of the reader and is divorced from typical
forms of discursive communication. This is what is perhaps most star-
tling about this conception of a mystical text. The text is not poetic, rhe-
torical, or even symbolic, but rather an intra-mental text that can only
be constituted and experienced by the adept. This mentally-generated
text itself is literally mystical in the sense that as the object of cogni-
tion it both reveals the mysteries of the Torah and provides the mecha-
nism by which the adepts intellect is joined to the divine intellect.
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