Abulafia, Meʾir

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ABULAFIA, MEʾIR (c. 11651244), known by the acronym RaMaH (Rabbi Meʾir ha-Levi). Abulafia was the first major Talmudist to appear in Spain in the period following Spanish Jewry's decisive transfer from Muslim to Christian rule in the mid-twelfth century. He was born in Burgos but moved early in his career to Toledo. His family included prominent communal leaders, some of whom served the Castilian monarchy as diplomats and administrators. Abulafia was fluent in Arabic and steeped in the culture of Spanish Jewry's "golden age"its Hebrew linguistics and poetry, biblical exegesis, and philosophy. He was among the leading Hebrew poets of his generation, composing both secular and sacred poetry. Despite his versatility and breadth, Abulafia's religious sensibility was fundamentally conservative: his educational ideal was anchored in classical texts and his theological stance in tradition.

Abulafia's primary vocation was Talmudic studies. His detailed and highly original commentaries combine legal conceptualization with pragmatism. They also reveal the earliest traces of the northern European influence that was to transform Spanish halakhah. Only two of these commentaries (to the Babylonian Talmud tractates Bavaʾ Batraʾ and Sanhedrin ) have survived intact, but quotations from others were preserved by later authors and influenced the subsequent development of Jewish law. Abulafia was widely consulted on halakhic questions, although only a fraction of his responsa survive.

Abulafia also composed an important work of biblical "text criticism," Masoret seyag la-Torah. This study of defective and plene spellings in the Pentateuch has been credited with the establishment of a virtually definitive consonantal text for Torah scrolls throughout the world.

Abulafia is remembered by modern historians mostly as a critic of Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/81204). In the first years of the thirteenth century, he attacked Maimonides' interpretation of ʿolam ha-baʾ, "the world to come." Maimonides interpreted ʿolam ha-baʾ along the lines of the philosophical notion of immortality. Abulafia thought this reinterpretation tantamount to a denial of the rabbinic idea of bodily resurrection and protested loudly. The ensuing controversy, which involved scholars in Catalonia, Provence, and northern France, was apparently brought to a close by the European publication of Maimonides' Epistle on Resurrection.

More wide-ranging and intense was the controversy that engulfed Jewish communities throughout Europe during the 1230s. Abulafia, along with Spanish colleagues like Yehudah ibn Alfakhar and Moses Nahmanides, was aligned with French traditionalists critical of Maimonidean rationalism. But unlike his French allies, Abulafia often interpreted aggadah (the nonlegal component of Talmudic literature) nonliterally and engaged in extra-Talmudic scientific and philosophical studies. Moreover, he admired much of Maimonides' intellectual achievement. His antirationalism focused, rather, on radical tendencies present in Spain: a stringent and all-encompassing naturalism, as well as the doctrine of salvation by philosophy and the attendant threat of antinomianism. Against philosophical naturalism, Abulafia defended the primacy of God's free will, and against a philosophical soteriology, he defended the primacy of "Torah and good deeds."

Abulafia's mature years saw the emergence of Qabbalah as a vigorous competitor of Maimonidean rationalism for the loyalty of Hispano-Jewish intellectuals. Some traditions claim that Abulafia himself was a qabbalist. His writings do not, however, support this contention. They rather reflect a militantly antimythic sensibility and a conscious renunciation of the grand quest for cosmic "secrets"philosophical or mysticalwhich Abulafia considered beyond humanity's ken.


Albeck, Shalom. "The Principles of Government in the Jewish Communities of Spain until the Thirteenth Century" (in Hebrew). Zion 25 (1960): 85121.

Carmi, T., ed. and trans. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. New York, 1981. A brief sample of Abulafia's poetry is on pages 392394.

Septimus, Bernard. Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition: The Career and Controversies of Ramah. Cambridge, Mass., 1982. Biographical information and an intellectual profile, with extensive references.

Septimus, Bernard. "Kings, Angels or Beggars: Tax Law and Spirituality in a Hispano-Jewish Responsum." In Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, edited by Isadore Twersky, vol.2, pp. 309336. Cambridge, Mass., 1984. Studies Abulafia's opposition to professionalized scholarship.

New Sources

Abulafia, Meir. Yad Ramah ve-shitot kadmonim ʿal Masekhet Gittin. Edited by Avraham Zevulun Shoshanah. Jerusalem, 1989.

Forcano, Manuel. "Rabí Xeixet Benveniste versus Rabí Meir Abulàfia (un episodi de la controvèrsia maimonidiana a Catalunya)." In Mossé ben Nahman i el seu temps: simposi commemoratiu del vuitè centenari del seu naixement 11941994, edited by Joan Boadas i Raset and Sílvia Planas i Marcé, pp. 257266. Girona, Spain, 1994.

Novak, David. "Both Selective and Electic: [On] Bernard Septimus, 'Hispano-Jewish Culture in Tradition; the Career and Controversies of Ramah,' 1982." Judaism 33 (1984): 364365.

Bernard Septimus (1987)

Revised Bibliography