The Kabbalist who tried to convert the Pope

Before the end of the Reconquista and the expulsion of the Sephardi Jews along with the Muslims, Spain had been a center of the Jewish world. The Jewish community had given Spain some of the best doctors, theologians, adventurers and administrators in the world. A surprisingly large amount of these came from the Jewish enclave in Tudela, in the province of Navarre. Tudela had been retaken from the Muslims in 1119 by King Alfonso “the Battler” and the Jews, in fear for their safety, started to flee to Muslim lands. Not wanting to lose this large community, Alfonso offered them special rights (that show that the Reconquista was not, initially, anti-Semitic). The Jews were granted the castle precincts as the Jewish quarter and were allowed to sell their houses in their old quarter; they were exempted from the “heathen tax” as long as they maintained their part of the city wall and they were even allowed to dispense justice to any Christian who committed a crime in the Ghetto (including the death penalty).

It was to this city that a Jewish family from Zaragoza moved to at some point in the 1240s. One of the children was called Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia. From an early age his father, Samuel Abulafia, taught him in the Hebrew bible and the Talmud in the hope that he would enter the scholarly life. However, at in 1258, at the age of eightheen, Abraham’s father died. This prompted the young man to wander, looking for traces of the biblical stories. In 1260 Abraham embarked on his first great journey to the ancient land of Israel intent on finding the legendary Sambation river, beyond which the Lost Tribe of Israel had been exiled by the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser V. Unfortunately for Abraham he arrived at the port of Acre (the last city held by the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem) just as the whole region was in chaos as the Egyptian Mamluks battled the invading Mongols. Unable to leave the city, Abraham was forced to return to Europe. By way of Greece and Capua he arrived in Italy where, under the tutelage of the philosopher Hillel ben Samuel ben Eliezer of Verona, he studied Moreh Nebhukhin (guide for the perplexed).

He returned to Spain and set himself up in Barcelona where he began to become interested in Kabbalah studying Sefer Yetzirah (the book of creation, ספר יצירה) as well as studying the esoteric nature of Hebrew letters and writing his first book, Sefer ha-Yashar (the book of the righteous, ספר הישר) in 1279. Believing that such knowledge held the key to becoming a prophet and vehicle for God’s will, Abraham began to have visions. In late 1279 he had a life-changing vision that he had to convert the Pope, Nicholas III, in time for Jewish new year in order to precipitate the coming of the Messiah.

In 1280 Abraham set out for Rome in order to fulfill his vision. The Pope was staying in a nearby town but had heard of this Jew seeking an audience in order to convert him. Nicholas is not known to history as a good Pope. Dante portrays him as suffering for eternity in the eighth circle of hell for his corruption and nepotism; he was, however, a close friend of St. Francis of Assisi (the founder of the Franciscan order). Nicholas gave orders to “burn the fanatic” and a pyre was set up outside the gates of the town. Abraham, meanwhile, made his way to the town. Boldly walking past the stake that was being set up for him he entered the town only to discover that Pope Nicholas III had died of an apoplectic stroke the previous night. His mission a failure, Abraham returned to Rome. However, the Franciscans, convinced that this Jew was somehow linked to the death of their benefactor, arrested him and threw him in prison where he remained for four weeks before disappearing after release.

The next we hear of Abraham Abulafia is, in the following year, in Sicily where he now claimed that he was not just a Prophet but the Messiah as well. Based in Messina Abraham won many followers from the Jewish community in Sicily over the next decade and wrote five books on his Kabbalist teachings. The Jewish community in Palermo at one point got so worried about Abraham’s success that they wrote to Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret, a man in Barcelona renowned for quashing Messianic pretenses. This Rabbi is said to have written a letter to the Jews of Palermo denouncing Abraham Abulafia but this has been lost to history but Abulafia’s teachings were soon dropped from curriculum of the Kabbalah schools in Spain as a result.

Eventually Abraham was driven out of Sicily and fled to the island of Comino, the smallest island in the archipelago of Malta, in 1291. Comino was a common refuge for exiled knights and other undesirables of Europe. There he wrote his last two books Sefer ha-Ot (the book of the sign) and Imrei Shefer (words of beauty; by all accounts his most intelligible book). All mention of this so-called Prophet and Messiah cease soon after.

Abraham Abulafia’s writing have since become hugely important to students of Kabbalah and Judaism in general. However, his claims of being the Messiah have long since been dismissed. Nevertheless this Jew from Spain led an extraordinary life from his childhood in Tudela to his journey to the Crusader states and failed attempt at the conversion of the Pope; his success in Sicily and exile to Malta. He deserves a place alongside Tudela’s other famous Jewish sons like the famous traveler Benjamin of Tudela.


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