Rambam as Kabbalist: An Early Account

Letter of Shmuel ben Mordechai about Rambam as Kabbalist, Vat Ms. Neofiti.11, fol. 325r

The idea that Rambam was actually a Kabbalist and not (or, depending on the theory, not just) a philosopher, became widespread about a century after his death.1 This idea takes two different forms: the first holds that Rambam turned his back on philosophy at the end of his life, renouncing his rationalist works, namely Sefer ha-Madda and Moreh ha-Nevuchim;2 the second view sees Rambam’s philosophy as Kabbalah, the two aspects of his thought an inseparable whole.3 Here I want to focus on an early documented example of this latter idea, which suggests an underlying harmony between Rambam’s rationalism and Kabbalah. It was written by Rabbi Shmuel ben Rabbi Mordechai, a little-known Provençal Rishon who lived in the first half of the thirteenth century, that is, in the decades after Rambam’s death.

Shmuel ben Mordechai: What We Know

R. Shmuel ben Mordechai is known to us from two sources. He is mentioned twice by his fellow Provençal rabbi Aharon ha-Kohen in the latter’s halachic compendium, Orchot Chaim,4 from which we know that R. Shmuel was a posek: R. Aharon ha-Kohen records two of his rulings.5

We also have Shmuel’s own voice preserved in a long letter he wrote to one Yekutiel ha-Kohen about Moreh ha-Nevuchim. Fragments of this letter are extant in three manuscripts.6 Of these, Vatican Ms. Neofiti 11 is said to be the best textual witness.7 The beginning of Shmuel’s (lengthy) letter was transcribed by Gershom Scholem in 1940.8 However, this article appeared before Scholem was aware of the copy in the manuscript Neofiti 11, and he later corrected the text in translation, which is what I cite below.9

In this letter, he notes that he studied under “Rabbi Shmuel, the son of the learned Rabbi Yehudah.” He attributes to his teacher R. Shmuel the tradition that every instance of “my beloved” in Shir ha-Shirim refers to the tenth order of angels identified by Rambam as ishim and which constitute an important part of the prophetic process as Rambam understands it.10 Scholem conjectures this teacher to be none other than the translator of the Moreh himself, Shmuel ben Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, who is known to have been active in Marseille around in the early thirteenth century.11

The identity of the person to whom Shmuel addresses his letter, Yekutiel ha-Kohen, is also little known. Yekutiel is generally assumed to be from Lunel.12

The Moreh as Kabbalistic Work

Shmuel ben Mordechai’s letter is fascinating in several regards. First, he suggests an esoteric understanding of the Moreh:

I meditated on the books of the Moreh and I found that his words agree with the Kabbalah of R. Avraham and of the Nazir, and deviate from it only in minor matters.

The identities of this R. Avraham and “the Nazir” are uncertain, and in fact some manuscrips have “R. Avraham ha-Nazir,” i.e. one person. Later in the letter Shmuel mentions a R. Avraham from ברידו, possibly Bordeaux. “The Nazir” could potentially reference any number of early kabbalists active in Provence who were known as nezirim.

Shmuel goes on to suggest the sefirotic system of Sefer Yetzirah is one and the same as Rambam’s theory of the Active (or Agent) Intellect and its effect on the separate intelligences:13

They [R. Avraham and the Nazir] received a tradition concerning ten sefirot, the first sefirah being Hokhmah, which is also the First Intelligence [Active Intellect], which is called “living Gd” and it is of this that it is said: “Gd created me at the beginning of His path.” With the hokhmah everything was constructed, and from it emenated separate intelligences. … And when it is said in Sefer yetzirah that the beginning of the sefirot is intertwined with their end, it thereby means to say that from the first sefirah emenated this second and then all the others. And the master wrote in the Moreh that the upper world consists entirely of immaterial Forms that are separated from all Matter and called angels.

Marc Shapiro has pointed out that Shmuel’s view is representative of the belief that Rambam turned to Kabbalah in later life.14 As Shapiro notes, Shmuel’s suggestion is, however, unusual among those believing Rambam to have become a kabbalist. Those ascribing to that notion commonly understand the Moreh, along with the philosophical portions of Mishneh Torah, to be illegitimate works rejected by Rambam himself after his supposed mystical turn. By contrast, Shmuel proposes that the Moreh is intended as a kabbalistic work and should be read as such–or, more accurately, that the Moreh functions simultaneously as a philosophical and mystical work, because the two systems are consonant.15

A Connection between the Hasidei Ashkenaz and the Early Kabbalists?

Another interesting facet of Shmuel’s letter is his understanding of the inherent unity of the early Kabbalistic tradition between Ashkenaz and Provence, specifically of the Hasidei Ashkenaz and the early circles of kabbalists in Provence and even Castile. Avraham Ab”d and Raavad are said to possess a kabbalistic tradition common to the famed Hasidei Ashkenaz Yehudah he-Hasid and Eleazar b. Yehuda of Worms (the Rokeach)—and, strikingly, in common with the (otherwise unknown) Yehuda Ibn Ziza in Toledo, who is likewise referred to as a hasid:

But the scholars of Provence,16 such as Avraham the head of the court (av beit din), and Raavad of blessed memory, and the scholar R. Avraham, the hasid R. Yehuda the Pious of Germany and the hasid R. Eliezer of Worms and the hasid R. Yehuda Ibn Ziza of Toledo of blessed memory, from whom the Nazir received—they all received by way of tradition, without any proof, as when someone transmits a secret to his friend without the need to give evidence.

The common tradition among early kabbalists spanning from the Rhineland to the heartland of Castile is further emphasized by Shmuel:

Some of them were of the opinion that angels are made of Matter and Form, and the humans resemble them in that respect, as seemed probably to them based on the verses of Scripture where it says, “He made man in the image of G-d”; and there are among them angels made of fire and water. … All this was due to the fact that they lacked insight into the levels of non-material Forms and believed that reality is stronger in the Forms containing Matter. That is also why there are among them those who think that Shi’ur Komah17 is to be understood literally. But they are all united in the opinion that no corporeality is to be attributed to the Creator Himself.

Shmuel’s version of Rambam’s late-in-life turn to Kabbalah, emerging in the decades following Rambam’s death, is an early witness to the harmonization of his rationalism with esoteric mysticism as well as a tantalizing source for the common wellspring of early Kabbalists in Provence and Sefarad with the Rhineland pietist movement.

Image: Vatican Ms. Neofiti.11, fol. 325r.


  1. There is a lot of great scholarship on this; start with Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism (Portland, Ore.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006); Moshe Idel, “Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and the Kabbalah,” Jewish History 18, no. 2/3 (2004): 197–226 and his Abraham Abulafia’s Esotericism: Secrets and Doubts (De Gruyter, 2020); Elliot Wolfson, “Beneath the Wings of the Great Eagle: Maimonides and Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah,” in Moses Maimonides (1138-1204): His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical “Wirkungsgeschichte” in Different Cultural Contexts, ed. Görge K. Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse (Würzburg, 2004), 209–37; and Yossef Schwartz, “Magic, Philosophy and Kabbalah: The Mystical and Magical Interpretation of Maimonides in the Later Middle Ages” [Hebrew], Da’at: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah 64–66 (2009): 99–132.
  2. The locus classicus is Shem Tov Ibn Gaon’s commentary on Mishneh Torah, Migdal Oz on Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 1:9.
  3. The early representatie of which is Avraham Abulafia, on which see Moshe Idel’s work in note 1.
  4. I wrote an overview of the fascinating Orchot Chaim here.
  5. The first has to do with determination of chametz. The second opinion concerns preparations for burial undertaken on yom tov, and incidentally implies that Shmuel issued halacha in Narbonne. Shmuel himself notes that he studied in Marseilles.
  6. Vat. Ms. Neofiti 11, fols. 325r-336v; Vat. Ms. ebr. 236, fols. 82r-84r; and Bodl. MS Opp. 658.
  7. As MS Opp. 658 is not digitized, I cannot confirm the fols. or compare it to Neofiti 11. Scholem says Neofiti is the best of the three, all of which he examined: see Origins of the kabbalah, ed. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, trans. Allan Arkush (JPS/Princeton UP, 1987), 226, n. 57.
  8. From MSS ebr. 236 and Opp. 658 in the article, עקבותיו של גבירול בקבלה (“The Traces of Gabirol in the Kabbalah”), published in מאסף סופרי ארץ ישראל (Tel Aviv, 1940), 175-176, reprinted in מחקרי קבלה, ed. Yosef Ben-Shlomo and Moshe Idel (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1998).
  9. In the 1987 Werblowsky/Arkush English edition of Scholem’s Origins of the Kabbalah, 225-226. Note that Scholem says on p. 226, n. 57 (of the Eng. ed.) that Shmuel’s letter appears on fols. 205-206, whereas it is on fols. 325r-336v as they are numbered today.
  10. Moreh 2:32; Mishneh Torah Yesodei Torah 2, 7.
  11. Scholem, Origins, 226.
  12. This is Neubauer’s suggestions in Les rabbins), Neofiti 11 notably has לונדרש, “Londres,” i.e. London, which, Scholem says, should be read as Anduze (Andusa in Occitan, today in Languedoc-Roussillon), which he notes that Ben Zion Dinur suggested to him in a personal communication.
  13. Based in medieval Aristotelianism, i.e. the limited number of the works of Aristotle transmitted in translation or paraphrase and intermingled with Neoplatonic works mistakenly attributed to Aristotle
  14. Marc B. Shapiro, “Principles of Interpretation in Maimonidean Halakhah,” in ibid., Studies in Maimonides and his Interpreters (Scranton, NJ: U of Scranton P, 2008), 85-86.
  15. ibid., 86, n. 359.
  16. Literally, “the land,” the most common way Rishonim refer to this region.
  17. The mystical speculation about the parameters of the Divine body.

Tamar Ron Marvin Avatar

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4 responses to “Rambam as Kabbalist: An Early Account”

  1. Amos Avatar

    Excellent post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the material on this fascinating question.
    I wonder what you mean by “kabbalah”?
    If it’s any form of Jewish mysticism, one could argue, that the mystical tradition of reading the Rambam started with his son, R. Avraham and then R. Ovadia. I’m very much inclined to call Rambam’s philosophy “philosophical mysticism” (in D. Blumenthal’s words) without seeing a big break in his oeuvre.
    One very small correction to footnote 13: Nearly the whole corpus of Aristotle was available in Arabic. From there, some works were directly translated into Hebrew, others in form of paraphrases or translations of commentaries.

    1. Tamar Ron Marvin Avatar

      Hi Amos, thank you, and thanks for adding your thoughts! You raise a great point about the early mystical reading of Rambam in the East. This piece properly speaks to the European reception.

      As to the demarcation lines between mysticism and the thing we today tend to call “Kabbalah” – they’re definitely tricky, as is the line separating medieval Kabbalah from earlier or antecedent forms. I’m inclined to think of late 12th and 13th century theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalah as distinct phenomena from rationalist philosophy, though some medieval Kabbalists’ self-perception would disagree.

      Thanks also for the diyuk – yes, and – the Arabic Aristotle often circulated in paraphrastic commentary, so meaning in a different form than we have today.

      1. Amos Avatar

        Hi Tamar, thanks for your clarifying reply!
        I agree with you on the ecstatic Kabbalah of the early period, especially if we include theurgic practices in the definition of Kabbalah.
        I did find Wolfson’s article helpful (finally a text by Wolfson that I understood! :)) in as far as he pointed towards the rhetorical tropes taken up from Rambam by early mequballim. At the same time, he refrains from turning Rambam into a kabbalist. Since I didn’t know this article before, thanks for linking to it!

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