Abraham Abulafia remains one of the unique and fascinating figures in the history of Jewish thought. His creativity spun over various fields; philosophy and Kabbalah, science and mathematics, interpretation and linguistic along prophecy and meditation. His uniqueness lies not only in his specific system and opinions, but his very style, soaked with imagination, secrets and oppositions. Abulafia was a figure of contradictions, an amalgamation of brilliant talents and awkward idiosyncrasies.
We know relatively much about his personal life since he included generously autobiographic details in his writings, revealing his hot temper and bitter disappointment of his students and fellow Kabbalists.
He was born in Zaragora, Spain, in 1240, a significant date on the Hebrew calender, which counts from the birth of Adam. Accordingly, Abulafia was born on the year 5000 that literally began a new millennium, a fact Abulafia was well aware of and cited as proof he was destined for extraordinary assignments.
He referred to himself as Messiah, meaning mostly that man should become his own redeemer by developing his spirituality and reaching mystical union. However, his opponents interpreted these expressions as Abulafia’s pretense to being a historical Messiah. This accusation was verified when in 1280, Abulafia, in one of the most dramatic adventures of his life, decided it was time to convert the Pope. This took place just a few days before Rosh Ha-Shanah, and the Pope was Nicholas III, best known for establishing the Vatican as the permanent base of papacy and for sending missionaries to Persia and China.
Abulafia himself documented this conversion attempt in his book Sefer HaEdot (Book of Testimony), calling himself Raziel, the angel who taught Adam the mysteries. As Abulafia noted, the numerical value of the angel’s name, 248, equals Abulafia’s first name- Abraham, and both names had the same number of letters, a fact that according to Abulafia enhanced the connection between them.
Abulafia arrived to Rome, planning to appear before the Pope on the day before Rosh-Ha-Shanah. The Pope who was at the time in Saronno, instructed the gatekeepers to lock up Abulafia and burn him at the stake. That night, as Abulafia recounts, he meditated and had wonderful visions and knew God would save him from his enemies.
The next day, as he was about to enter Rome, a messenger told him the Pope had died the previous night. From that moment on, Abulafia regarded his miraculous escape as a sign of the covenant between God and himself.
Apart for this incident, Abulafia referred to his system as spiritual messianism and prophetic Kabbalah that aims at releasing the mind and soul from earthly bonds to reach a union with the Divine.
He wrote forty two books but only a handful has survived since his work was condemned by prominent rabbis, including Kabbalists, although, he was highly esteemed by others, like the important Kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla.
Abulafia criticized theosophical Kabbalist (who concentrated on describing divine spheres) since his own Kabbalah was based on a rational system of meditation. He regarded God as the active intellect that surpasses everything, a kind of cosmic stream that endows being with forms. This force exists everywhere, certainly in the human soul. By meditating, we rid our physical being of its crudity (“Satan,” for Abulafia who had issues with sexual desire…) and unite with the cosmic spirit.
Abulafia died around 1291 in Comino, a Maltese Island. His few surviving writings remain up to these days some of the most important sources for instructing Kabbalistic meditation through permutations and combinations of the Hebrew alphabet.