Adventurous and bold, R' Avraham began his life of wandering with a journey to Eretz Yisrael when he was barely 20 years. He wished to proceed to the river Sambatyon in search of the ten lost tribes, but he was stopped in Akko (Acre) by the Crusaders. He then set out on a return voyage to Spain. On his way home, he spent some time in Capua, Italy, studying philosophy, particularly Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim. Dissatisfied with this branch of learning, he turned instead to Kabbalah. Returning to Spain in 1271, he settled in Barcelona and applied himself to ardent study of Sefer Yetzirah and its commentaries, especially that of Rabbi Elazar of Worms, whose kabbalistic doctrine he accepted in its entirety. R' Avraham claimed that he was able to rise to the heights of Divine inspiration through the combination of letters and Divine Names mentioned by R' Elazar. He had numerous disciples, most notable among them, Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla.
In 1280, he journeyed to Rome with the announced intention of persuading Pope Nicholas III to convert to Judaism. The pope, then vacationing in Suriano, heard of his plans and issued orders to burn the fanatical Jew as soon as he arrived. Although a stake was erected for the purpose, R' Avraham continued on his way. Upon reaching Suriano, however, he learned that the pope had succumbed to a stroke the night before. R' Avraham returned to Rome, where he was thrown into prison but released four weeks later.
He then journeyed to Sicily and settled in Messina, where he surrounded himself with many students and preached of the imminent coming of Messiah. His habits and prophecies caused much confusion among the Messina community, and they turned to Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet) , the generation's foremost Torah authority, for guidance. Rashba condemned Abulafia and his followers in the sharpest terms, and warned the community not to become involved with a false Messianic movement.
Rashba's condemnation compelled Abulafia to seek a new base. He went to Greece, where he composed Vezot L'Yehudah and Sheva Netivot HaTorah defending himself against Rashba's attacks, claiming that the Rashba did not know him personally, but judged him from hearsay. Indeed, in a later generation, Rabbi Chaim Vital cites him extensively in his book Shaarei Kedushah.
In total, R' Avraham authored 26 books, plus 22 works containing descriptions of his visions. His last known work, Imrei Shefer, a commentary on Beresheet, was written in 1291.
R' Abulafia was one of the most important mystical teachers in the history of Kabbalah, introducing manuscript works into the formerly oral tradition that Kabbalah had existed under for so long. He disseminated so much information that was previously in the hands of a few, and made Kabbalah readily available to those who could obtain his works. Abulafia claimed that he did this for two reasons, "The theological reason is related to the final redemption, for which these mysteries are necessary, while the human reason is due to the lack of Kabbalah masters in his generation" . He was not deterred in writing kabbalistic works, and initiated the influx of that literature in the 13th century.
In many places in his writings, Abulafia indicates that he is a prophet, and in others, he hints that he has a special mission. There are also many veiled allusions that could be interpreted as messianic delusions. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) states, however, "For the most part, these are ambiguous, and it is probable that when he speaks of himself as the 'anointed one,' he means that he is enlightened, and not that he is the promised messiah" . All of these claims gained him some notoriety in his time, and other Rabbis either despised or honored him as a true prophet.
R' Abulafia developed a system based on the Hebrew alphabet. While many methods of meditation involve the repetition or chanting of words or phrases, R' Abulafia places importance on the writing of words. To begin the "Kabbalah of letters," Abulafia says thus:
"Take the pen in your hand, like a spear in the hand of a warrior. When you think of something, uttering it in your heart with a specific letters, also express it with your mouth. Listen carefully, and 'watch what emanates from your lips' (Deuteronomy 23:24). Let your ears hear what your lips speak, and with your heart, understand the meaning of all these expressions. Write each expression down immediately. Manipulate the letters, and seek out other words having the same numerical value [gematria], even if they do not follow my path. And know that this will be your key to open the fifty gates of wisdom.... "
This technique, which involves the senses of touching, hearing, and seeing, is quite involved. Abulafia's basis for this is the story of Betzalel in Exodus, who is given the job of erecting the Tabernacle in the desert after the Exodus. According to Abulafia, Betzalel had the mystical ability to manipulate the letters of creation (the Hebrew alphabet), he was able to build the Tabernacle in such a manner as to channel the spiritual energies of creation. Abulafia, according to R' Kaplan, finds a hint for this in Psalms 18:31, which states, "God's way is perfect (tamim), God's word is permuted (tzerufah)." Both of these words are used frequently by kabbalists to describe the process of ascribing numerical value to Hebrew words (gematria), and then permuting them for further understanding. R' Abulafia took this one step further than previous kabbalists, and introduced speech and writing to the meditative techniques of gematria. Thus, instead of chanting a word repeatedly, as in mantric meditation, one writes a word, permuting and cycling the letters in every possible manner. On a higher level, R' Abulafia taught that by pronouncing the letters of the Divine Names, accompanied by specific head motions, as well as particular breathing exercises, one could attain prophetic visions beyond description. "One who reaches the highest level cannot reveal it to anyone. All he can do is give over the keys, so that the enlightened individual can open the gates which are sealed to exclude the unworthy".
Rabbi Avraham Abulafia said : There is an outcome to all our choices. Whoever is drawn toward the vanities of temporality, his soul shall survive in the vanities of temporality and whoever is drawn after the Name… which is above temporality, his soul shall survive in the eternal realm beyond time, in God, may He be blessed.
May the merit of the tzaddik Rabbi Avraham Abulafia protect us all, Amen.