December 10, 2009


From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Meditation and the Kabbalah” (Jason Aronson or Samuel Weiser editions), pp. 107-108. Although footnotes have been removed, several source references have been restored to the text.

Gates of Righteousness

Although [Rabbi Abraham] Abulafia (1240-after 1291) presents an excellent overview of his [meditative] methods, he does not fit them together into a single system, nor does he discuss the form of his experiences in any detail. This is left to an anonymous disciple, author of Sha’arey Tzedek (“Gates of Righteousness”), a book that was most probably written in the year 1295 in Hebron. A clue to the identity of the author is provided in another manuscript, which indicates that the author’s name was Shem Tov. As mentioned earlier, Abulafia had a disciple by the name of Shem Tov of Borgus, and it is highly probable that he is the author of this book.

There is very little question that the master mentioned in this book is none other than Abulafia himself. And for the most part, the material here appears to parallel that in other works by Abulafia. Most important, however, is an autobiographical sketch, where the author speaks of his experience with Abulafia, describing his initial skepticism and ultimate enlightenment. We will not include this here, however, since it has already been published elsewhere in English.

Numerous copies of this book were made, and it exerted an important influence on the later Kabbalists of the Holy Land. Almost an entire chapter was copied two hundred years later in the main work of Rabbi Judah Albotini, whom we shall discuss in the next section. Another important Kabbalah text, Shoshan Sodot (“Rose of Mysteries”), actually quotes it by name.

The author speaks of three ways through which one can divest himself of the physical: the common way, the philosophical way, and the Kabbalistic way. The common way involves a method called “erasure” (mechikah), where one attempts to erase all images from the mind (Sha’arey Tzedek, 59b). The author notes that he was aware that the Moslem Sufis also made use of this technique, and that one method involved the repeated chanting of the name “Allah.” AIthough the Sufis are able to attain a degree of ecstasy in this manner, the author writes that they cannot know its significance, since they are not party to the Kabbalah tradition.

Discussing the philosophical way, the author speaks of a certain philosopher by the name of Ben Sina, who wrote many volumes while in a state of meditation (hitbodedut). When an idea was particularly difficult, he would concentrate on it and ponder it, often drinking a cup of strong wine, enabling him to sleep on it (Sha’arey Tzedek, 60a-b). This is of particular interest, since a very similar procedure is also discussed by Rabbi Isaac of Acco, and this is one indication that the two shared a common tradition.

It is in discussing the way of Kabbalah that the author mentions his master, who is identified as Abulafia. The master spent four months teaching him the methods of letter permutations, telling him to erase everything from his mind. Finally he told him, “The goal is not to stop at any finite form, even though it is of the highest order. Through the way of Divine Names, one can reach a level where the power is not under his control. The more incomprehensible the Names, the greater is their advantage” (Sha’arey Tzedek, 62b).

The master then showed him books composed of utterly incomprehensible Names and number combinations, saying, “This is the Path of Names.” The author spent two months deeply meditating on these, and finally, one night, he awoke to see a light shining from his face. At first he did not believe what he was seeing, but no matter where he walked in the dark, this light followed him, even when he hid under a blanket. He was aware that this was something that could not be explained in any natural manner.

Upon informing the master of this experience, the author was told to spend half his time permuting letters, and half making use of the Divine Names. One night while permuting the letters of the Name of Seventy-Two, he began to see the letters expanding before his eyes, growing until they looked like great mountains. His hair stood on end, and he began to speak automatically, saying words of wisdom.

On a later occasion, the author made use of a technique involving the Tetragrammaton. At first, he felt as if he would die, but after saying a sincere prayer, he suddenly felt as if he were being anointed with oil from head to toe. He then felt a tremendous spiritual experience, which he speaks of as indescribable sweetness of rapture and ecstasy.