Rabbi Abulafia and the Marsh Demon


My teacher Rabbi Jose had been Rabbi Abulafia’s student when Rabbi Jose was sixteen and Rabbi Abulafia was very, very old, so because I was able to study with Rabbi Jose in his old age, I am now, despite the fact that I am no rabbi but a dealer in cardamom and other exotic spices, the most enlivened ring in the chain of rings that leads back to the Great Magnet himself, Rabbi Abulafia.

When my father expelled me from my house for challenging him and I took to the roads and slept behind bushes, with no companion but an empty stomach and the rain, and the stars, I went to the house of Rabbi Jose for wisdom, and, since wisdom although free, is never dispensed without a test, he challenged me.

This was his challenge: “A master of the old days yclept the Divine Empedocles taught that the two great principles are Love and Strife. Could this be right? Show your work.”

And this was my response to the challenge: “Empedocles could not be right. Because if we love strife, then that love of strife is strife, and if we contend with strife, then that strife with strife is love. But the love of strife and the strife with strife, are both strife, and we know this. But we could not know this, if it were true, as the Sage Empedocles would have us believe, that the sum total of all there is is love and strife.” I slept by the fire with the other students and ate a bowl of porridge the next morning, because my answer pleased Rabbi Jose.


Although it pleased him, it did not please me. I felt I had won my night by the fire and my bowl of porridge, and the praise from the master, by a trick. I spoke words that perhaps answered the Rabbi’s question, but I did not understand them, I was as it were, a man who pays a debt with an envelope under seal, whose seal he does not break, and who therefore cannot truly feel the debt has been repaid — because what if within the envelope was not a bill of tending, but simply a request for mercy?

“What troubles you, Chaim Menashe?” asked Rabbi Jose that evening as I mopped the floor of the kitchen where his enormous cat lay stretched out poring over its seemingly fruitless studies.

(The rabbi placed its food in front of it arranged in the forms of the letters of the alphabet; he hoped to teach it to read.)

I wondered whether I could be honest with him. The night was cold and I did not welcome another pillow of stone, or supper of air.

But why my conscience asked me go into the house of truth if one wishes to lie?

I told the Rabbi the truth.

“I do not truly understand the problem with the views of the sage Empedocles on Love and Strife.”

“Let me tell you a story.” said Rabbi Jose.


During his last days Rabbi Abulafia entered into a battle with the Bishop of Rome, who styled himself the Papa, or “Pope”. Each of them had a a covy of assassins who wove in and out of the camps of the other leader, pressing here, testing there, looking for an advantage. If Abulafia’s men slew the Pope, he would become Pope. If the Pope slew Abulafia he would gain access to his library, including the Tome of the Angel Raziel, and he would be able to storm Heaven.

One night as Abulafia reclined in his tent, taking accounts of the Pope’s movements from his spies, and plotting his possible location on an immense chessboard, two hundred squares at one side, his servants rushed in to announce the arrival of a visitor. A tall young man, fair of countenance, with long beautiful red hair and a single mustachio curling over the left side of his nose, offering his assistance. He had a map of the sewers of Rome and would lead the Rabbi himself to the privy of the Bishop, there for to slay him. “A moment, my friend.” said the Rabbi and left the camp.

The Rabbi strode into the throne room of St. Peter’s basilica and sought out the Pope. The Pope’s swissguards pointed their halberds at his throat. “Shall we slay him, Pontiff?” they inquired. “The Book of the Angel Raziel will be in your hands tonight, and by dawn tomorrow you will sit triumphant upon the Throne of Heaven!”

“Wait.” said the Pope, because although evil, he was wise. “Let us here what he has to say.”

“Bring him to me!” shouted the Rabbi.


“The beautiful young man who came to you offering his assistance! The one whose mustache curls under the RIGHT side of his nose!”

The Pope’s Swiss guards brought forth the man. The assassins of the rabbi brought forth his man. They were both tied together to a black rooster and burned, as they burned it smelled like marsh gas — they exploded in a puff of pestilence and were gone.

“What manner of شعوذة shueudha was that?” asked the Pope of the Rabbi.

“These creatures are generated by the pestilence of the soft rises outside your city. They are marsh demons. When strife occurs they offer themselves to both sides as helpers.”

“Why both sides? Why not the side of evil?”

“They know that whenever two sides contend to the death that is evil enough for them. They do not need to choose which is evil or which is good, Pontiff. They know one side or another will win, and when that happens they will have the trust of the ruler. If you had won, that demon would have been sitting on the throne of God himself come dawn.”

“And if you had won, Rabbi?” asked the Pontiff.

“Something far far worse would betide.” replied Abulafia.


“And so I ask you, Chaim Menashe” said Rabbi Jose were the pair of marsh-demons lovers of strife, or strivers against strife?”

“I don’t know.” I answered.

“And did the Rabbi and the Pontiff in standing up to the tricks of the marsh demons, show that they loved each other? Or that they loved something, more than they loved their strife?”

I was silent.

That night as the enormous cat lay by the fire, purring and twitching and forgetting its lessons, I packed a loaf of bread and left the rabbi’s house. I knew that I was a base creature, not worthy of knowledge, and knowing that I resolved to pursue wealth instead. I decided to go to sea and travel to Damascus, where I would live by selling spice.


One thought on “Rabbi Abulafia and the Marsh Demon

  1. Funny about love and strife (in Empedocles’s sense): neither can exist without the other. Strife separates, love reunites. Without strife, love would have no object. As you know better than I, some Kabbalists speculated that a similar dynamic was at work in the tzimtzum. It’s been a while since I even looked at the pre-Socratics, but I pulled a book off the shelf and, yep, you weren’t making it up about Empedocles, it’s right there in “On the Nature of Things.”

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