July 6, 2009


From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Meditation and Kabbalah” (Samuel Weiser or Jason Aronson editions), p. 111-114. Footnotes have been omitted for this online version.

Rabbi Judah Albotini: The Ladder of Ascent

The teachings of [Rabbi Abraham] Abulafia (1240-1291) are known to have come to the Holy Land through the author of Shaarey Tzedek, and it appears that they took firm root there. Over two hundred years later, we find one of the prominent sages of the Holy Land, a chief rabbi of Jerusalem, involved in these mysteries and authoring an important book on Abulafia's teachings. This is none other than Rabbi Judah Albotini (1453-1519), author of Sulam HaAliyah (“Ladder of Ascent”).

Albotini is known to Talmudic scholars as the author of a supercommentary on Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah. This was published by Rabbi Shlomo ldni (1567-1626), author of another important commentary on the Mishnah. Written in 1501, this supercommentary is included in the most important edition of the Mishnah. Not as well-known is Albotini’s monumental commentary on Maimonides’ code, which exists only in manuscript.

Not too much is known of the personal life of Albotini, other than the fact that his father, Moshe Albotini, was a prominent scholar in Lisbon. It is highly probable that the family was exiled in 1496, during the general expulsion of Jews from Portugal. This is significant, since Rabbi Judah Chayit, a strong opponent of Abulafia’s teachings, also left Portugal during this same expulsion. The fact that Chayit found it necessary to denounce Abulafia’s writings indicates that they enjoyed a degree of popularity in his homeland.

Albotini migrated to the Holy Land, and by 1509, we find him as a member of the Jerusalem academy, where he signed an ordinance exempting scholars from the head tax. He succeeded Rabbi Jacob of Triel as head of the Jerusalem Academy, making him the official head of all the Rabbis of Jerusalem. It would appear that Abulafia’s school of meditative Kabbalah was sufficiently accepted in Jerusalem at the time that a practitioner and teacher of these methods could be chosen as a chief Rabbi. A short time later, we find another teacher of these methods, Rabbi Joseph Tzayach, also holding a rabbinical post in Jerusalem.

A manuscript of Sulam HaAliyah was in the hands of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Sasoon bekhor Moshe Presiado (d. 1903), and from what he writes, he actually intended to publish it. Although he never succeeded in doing so, a number of key chapters have been published in scholarly journals. Several manuscripts of this book exist, both in libraries and in private collections.

In this book, Albotini speaks about the Meditative Kabbalists (Mekubalim HaMitbodedim), as if they were a well-established group in his time. Speaking about other books on the subject of letter manipulation (tzeruf) that had recently been written, he warns that they contain many errors. He is thoroughly familiar with Abulafia’s system, upon many of whose teachings he expands, presenting them in a clear and well-ordered manner. In two places, he mentions Abulafia’s Chayay Olam HaBah (“Life of the Future World”) by name.

The first few chapters of the book deal mostly with word and letter manipulation (tzeruf) drawing heavily on Abulafia's works. Because this involves the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, it is virtually impossible to do justice to this method in English. The individual interested in pursuing the subject further can find an excellent summary in the published works of the Ramak.

Another idea that Albotini discusses in detail is that of “jumping” (kefitzah) and “skipping” (dilug). Although this is mentioned by Abulafia, and the method was undoubtedly used by him, he does not present a clear picture how one makes use of it. Albotini not only clearly describes these techniques within Abulafia’s system of tzeruf, but he also provides a number of examples showing how they are used.

Briefly, “skipping” consists of a sort of free association, using any one of the standard methods of letter manipulation. This can consist of simple letter permutation, the use of ciphers, or finding other words with similar numerical values (gematria). Words can also be expanded in a number of ways, the simplest being to spell out different letters of the word. As long as one is making use of a single system, such as gematria for example, he is said to be “skipping.” When he goes from one system of letter manipulation to another, then he is said to be “jumping.” All of this was seen as an important meditative technique through which one could attain a high level of enlightenment.

An important prerequisite for attaining the meditative experience is stoicism (hishtavut), and this is discussed at great length by Albotini. This has been discussed by a number of later kabbalists, but Abulafia only speaks about it in passing, writing, “One who has attained true passion (cheshek) is not influenced by the blessings or curses of others. It is as if they were speaking in a language that he does not understand.” Albotini's teachings regarding stoicism, however, seems to come from Rabbi Isaac of Acco, who speaks of this idea at length. This is of particular significance, since it would indicate that Albotini was a student of Rabbi Isaac of Acco as well as of Abulafia.

Albotini also expands on Abulafia's discussion of Hewing (chatzivah) and Engraving (chakikah), mentioned in the Sefer Yetzirah. When a person reaches a high meditative level, “the mind is no longer concealed in the prison of the physical faculties, and it emerges ... entering the spiritual domain.” In this domain, the individual may see various visions or letter combinations, and the connotation of Hewing is that he “splits” and analyzes these visions while still in a meditative state. Engraving then implies that he “engraves” these revelations in his soul so that they are never forgotten.

Although Albotini speaks of a number of standard meditative techniques, Albotini maintained that any proper teaching could serve as the subject of one's meditation. He thus writes, “Those who meditate (hitboded) concentrate on an idea or on a very deep lesson. They close their eyes, and virtually nullify all their faculties in order to allow their hidden intellect to emerge from potential to action. They then absorb the lesson, permanently engraving it in their Soul.”

Through the use of Divine Names in meditation, one can channel extremely powerful spiritual forces. Albotini writes that Moses made use of this to save Israel, and that “with the power of the Divine Names, which he pronounced in his prayers, he was able to turn back the anger and fury.” More remarkable, he states that the Ten Martyrs could have saved themselves by using these Names, and that the sages could have even prevented the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians and Romans. But, seeing that this had been God's decree, they refrained from doing anything.

The Talmud (Ketubot 111a) speaks of three oaths that Israel made not to improperly hasten the coming of the Messiah. This is based on the verse, “I bind you by an oath, 0 daughters of Jerusalem . . . that you not awaken, that you not arouse the love, until it is desired” (Song of Songs 3:5). There has been much discussion of this oath, and some rabbis have even used it as a refutation of Zionism.

Albotini provides a very novel interpretation of this oath, saying that the great masters of Kabbalah meditation were bound by an oath not to use their methods to hasten the redemption. He thus writes, “Even though the coming of the Messiah is a great concept, necessary for the rectification of all Universes, the sages and saints who knew the mystery of God’s name were bound by an oath not to arouse the redemption until they knew that God desired that it should occur.”

In general, Albotini warns against pronouncing any of the Divine Names, even those discussed by Abulafia. Anticipating the Ari, he understands that, while earlier generations may have been able to purify themselves sufficiently so that they could actually pronounce the Names, later generations are no longer able to do this. But still, he maintains that it is not actually necessary to pronounce the Names, and that much can be accomplished by merely knowing them and pondering their significance.

This is evidenced from the verse, “He was enraptured in Me, I will bring him forth, I will raise him up, because he knew My Name” (Psalms 91:14). Albotini notes that the verse does not say, “he pronounces My name,” but rather, it says, “he knows My name.” He concludes, “from this we see that the main thing is the knowledge of the Divine Names, of their existence, essence, and meaning.” A similar explanation is also provided to the verse, “Before they call I will answer them” (Isaiah 65:24). “Even though one concentrates on a given name and only thinks about it, without ‘calling’ and actually pronouncing it, he will be answered.”