The following is an excerpt from Dr. Moshe Idel’s seminal essay, “Hitbodedut as Concentration in Ecstatic Kabbalah,” which was first printed in his pioneering “Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah” (SUNY). Footnotes have been omitted from this online version. In his many scholarly works, Dr. Idel has demonstrated that Rabbi Abraham Abulafia was a key figure in the development of Jewish mysticism, the impress of whose thought is evident in both the Safed Kabbalah of the sixteenth century and the eighteenth century Chassidic movement.
Hitbodedut in the Writings of Abraham Abulafia
Most of the discussions of hitbodedut that were written prior to Abulafia saw it as an activity engaged in by Moses, the prophets, and the pious men of ancient times. The approach of both Jewish philosophers and Kabbalists was based on the assumption that prophecy was a phenomenon of the past. For this reason, their discussions of this subject must be seen primarily as literary activity— exegesis of the Bible or of Talmudic sayings—rather than as rules for actual practice.
This situation was radically changed in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-ca. 1291). As one who saw himself as a prophet and messiah, he believed that his particular form of Kabbalah paved the way for mystical experience for all who would follow his path. For this reason, the tone of his writing is clearly practical; his writings, from which we shall quote below, are intended as guides to “prophecy” for his contemporaries, and the autobiographical hints therein leave no doubt that he himself followed these techniques and enjoyed their fruits. These two facts are clear signs of the actualization of the discussion concerning hitbodedut whose effects are also felt among later Kabbalists, under the direct or indirect influence of Abulafia’s writings.
In the commentary on his work Sefer ha-Edut, written on the occasion of his abortive attempt in 1280 to meet with Pope Nicholas III, Abulafia writes:
"The Pope commanded all the guards of his house, when he was in Soriano. . . that should Raziel [thus Abulafia designates himself] come to speak with him in the name of the Jews, that they take him immediately, and that he not see him at all, but that he be taken outside of the city and burnt.... And this matter was made known to Raziel, but he paid no attention to the words of those who said this, but he practiced hitbodedut and saw visions and wrote them down, and thus came about this book."
The close connection between hitbodedut and revelation is better explained if we assume that Abulafia concentrated in order to receive an illumination which would guide him in this critical situation, when he was also pressed for time. From what we know, Abulafia arrived at the palace in Soriano right at the time he wrote these things, so that it is difficult to imagine that he found a house or room in which to seclude himself, as he advises in his other writings. It is clear that this is not a casual suggestion, nor a historical description of the prophets, but a firsthand account of the use of hitbodedut in order to attain revelation. Hitbodedut in the sense of concentration appears to have been part of a way of life, and not only a sporadic activity performed in times of trouble or danger. In an epistle known as The Seven Paths of the Torah (Sheva’ Netivot ha-Torah), Abulafia enumerates a long list of works which he learned, but which did not bring him to “prophecy”:
"But none of this brought me to apprehension of the Active Intellect, to the point that I could take pride in prophecy, that I could fulfill the verse, “For in this shall the proud man take pride . . .” (Jer 9:23) until I received this apprehension in actuality, and I placed my soul in my hands according to the way of the Kabbalists, in knowing the Name alone. Yet nevertheless there were strong obstacles against me because of my sins, and they held me back from the path of hitbodedut until the Holy Spirit left me, as is the case today."
Abulafia here states explicitly that it was only the actual practical use of the technique of combination of letters of the divine name which brought about these revelations. This technique is referred to as “the way of the Kabbalists,” and it constitutes the particular kabbalistic method advocated by him. The expression “the way of hitbodedut” may also allude to this, for which reason it makes sense to assume here that hitbodedut refers not to isolation from society but to the use of a kabbalistic technique of combining letters, for which mental concentration is indispensable. An alternative interpretation of this incident, that Abulafia was unsuccessful in isolating himself from society, seems to me to be incorrect: we know that he attempted to disseminate his teachings in public and that he was persecuted by his opponents, who certainly would not have objected were the prophet-messiah to abandon his public activity and withdraw to some isolated place to engage in his own private, peculiar form of Kabbalah. It seems to me that Abulafia’s comments concerning “obstacles” are to be interpreted as referring to disturbances, whether internal or external, to his own powers of concentration.
Support for this understanding of Abulafia’s comments may be found elsewhere in his epistle Sheva’ Netivot ba-Torah. In the description of the seven ways to interpret the Torah, he mentions, at the end of the fifth path:
"This path is the beginning of the wisdom of letter-combination in general, and is only fitting to those who fear God and take heed of His name [Mal 3:16]. And the sixth path . . . is suitable to those who practice concentration (hitbodedut), who wish to approach God, in a closeness such that His activity—may He be blessed—will be known in them to themselves."
It also seems to me that one may discern here the connection between the “practitioners of hitbodedut” and the “science of letter-combination.” In this passage, as well, he speaks of closeness to God, but it is still only a stage preceding the seventh path, that appropriate to “prophets,” through which there comes about the “apprehension of the essence of the Ineffable Name.” It follows from this that the “path of hitbodedut” is an earlier stage in the process intended for the attainment of prophecy. It must be stressed that, despite the “objective” description of the practitioners of concentration, this is not only a theoretical discussion; the seven ways of reading or of interpreting the Torah do not refer to the distant past, but constitute a living option for the members of Abulafia’s own generation, he having been the one to restore these older ways of reading. Abulafia saw himself as a prophet both to himself and to others—that is, as one who had undergone the final two stages along the path outlined in his epistle. For this reason, it seems that his words must be seen as an autobiographical testimony, from which point of view this text should be combined with the two previous quotations, whose autobiographical character is quite evident.
A close relationship between letter-combination and hitbodedut appears in the book Hayyey ha-‘0lam ba-Ba’:
"He must also be very expert in the secrets of the Torah and its wisdom, so that he may know what will occur to him in the circles [the concentric circles on which the letters to be combined are written] of the combination, and he will arouse himself to think of the image of the Divine prophetic Intellect. And when he begins to practice letter-combination in his hitbodedut he will feel fear and trembling, and the hairs of his head will stand up and his limbs will tremble." (MS Oxford 1582, fols. 116-12a)
Here, hitbodedut designates the special concentration required by the Kabbalist in order to combine letters. This intense concentration involves physical side effects that would be difficult to explain were they caused only by withdrawal from society.
In conclusion, we should emphasize the innovation involved in Abulafia’s understanding of hitbodedut as concentration. According to extant kabbalistic sources, he seems to have been the first Kabbalist to connect hitbodedut with a practical, detailed system to give the concept hitbodedut real content: essentially, the combination of letters and the vocalization associated with them. Later we shall see that the presence of an association between hitbodedut and letter-combination or the recitation of divine names is likely to be a conclusive sign of the direct or indirect influence of Abulafia’s kabbalistic system.
Most of the texts to be discussed below were written in the Middle East, or by authors of Eastern origin. This striking fact is doubtless connected, first of all, with the relationship between Abulafia’s system and Sufism, a relationship acknowledged by the Kabbalists themselves. Second, as Abulafia’s Kabbalah was subject to intense attack by the RaShBA, its influence within Spain itself was limited, which created an imbalance between the spread of prophetic Kabbalah in the East and its curtailment in the West. On the other hand, there is considerable discussion of hitbodedut among Jewish philosophers in Provence and Spain during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, albeit lacking in Abulafia’s practical tone, in which classical prophecy is interpreted as a phenomenon attained through the help of hitbodedut whether this is understood as concentration or as withdrawal from society. These discussions are likewise associated with Arabic philosophical texts, such as Sefer Hanhagat ba-Mitboded by Ibn Bajjah, or Sefer Hay Ben Yoqtan by Ibn Tufail, and they later influenced the development of Kabbalah during the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the Spanish Jewish thinkers contemporary with the Kabbalists were influenced neither by Abulafia’s doctrine of hitbodedut or that of his disciples, nor by the Jewish-Sufic approaches of the school of Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237).