As early as the second century CE Rabbi Joshua protested: “The Torah is not in heaven!” (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai you (God) wrote in your Torah, “One must incline after the majority.” (Exodus 23:2)”
Rabbi Nathan met [prophet] Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One do at that moment?” Elijah said: “He laughed [with joy], saying (proudly), ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.’” (Talmud Baba Metzia 59b) Thus God was happy his children had now achieved enough maturity to govern themselves without the need for ongoing prophetic guidance. A divine voice is still available for personal guidance but not for setting community policy.
In the following centuries, the influence of saintly rabbis reached an even higher point with the rise of the Spanish Kabbalah in the 13th century, the Tsafat Kabbalah in the 16th century; and then spread and was popularized with the rise of Hassidism in the mid 18th century. This stimulated an ongoing reaction to the stories of spiritually powerful rabbis who could influence socio-political events, and there appeared an ongoing warning tale about an otherwise unknown Kabbalist named Joseph della Reyna.
Rabbi Joseph Della Reina was a rare tragic folk-hero who emerged out of the turbulent century of Iberian Jewish life which was transformed dramatically between the first forced mass baptisms in Spain in 1391 and the subsequent exile from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal in 1497. Rabbi Joseph della Reyna became a highly popular figure in Jewish traditions east and west. In traditional Jewish literature tragedy befalls those who die at the hands of their tormentors. But he was caught in the snare of his own messianic expectations, mystical visions, and passionate desires for an ideal world of justice and peace. Traditional narratives of his battle with angels and demons are the only testimony to his life.
The first to note the story in writing was the kabbalist Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi (c. 1460-1528) who alluded to and briefly recounted it in a book written in Jerusalem in 1519. The date clearly indicates that the tale was born in the crucible of religious persecutions and messianic expectations that punctuated Jewish life in Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the story of Rabbi Joseph della Reyna was known among the kabbalists in Safed, such as Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570) and Rabbi Hayyim ben Joseph Vital (1542-1620) who both alluded to Rabbi Joseph della Reyna in their writings. In these circles the tale was shifted from the west (Spain and Morocco) to the eastern Mediterranean and to Tzfat. In the seventeenth century a fuller rendition of the story was written down by Solomon Navarro (1606-after 1673) and was incorporated by the Egyptian chronicler Joseph ben Isaac Sambari (1640-1703) into his Chronicle of Joseph (completed in 1672).
Rabbi Joseph Della Reina lived near Tzfat and desperately wanted to bring about the Redemption of the Jewish People. He took 5 of his most loyal students whom were very knowledgeable in Kabbalah and would do anything he requested and told them: I am resolved to use the secrets of the Torah to remove all impurities from this world and bring the Redemption and Messiah, who will release us from our oppressors. After 3 days of spiritual preparation they went to Miron, to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s grave and studied the Book of Zohar the whole night.
When Rabbi Della Reina dozed off, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai came to him in a dream and asked, “Why are you getting yourself in such a difficult task which you will not be able to carry out?”. Rabbi Della Reina answered that God knows his intentions are pure and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai blessed him to succeed. The following morning, they went to an open field, fasted all day and focused only on Kabalistic prayers. They did this consecutively for 3 days and 3 nights, while fasting. By the power of their holy formula of prayer, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai ordered Prophet Eliyahu to appear. Right away he appeared and asked them what is so urgent that they used a special formula in their prayers to call him?. Rabbi Joseph Della Reina said, “I’m zealous for the honor of the Blessed and Holy One. Show me how to subdue Satan and strengthen the Holy side of existence?”
Eliyahu answered him, “What you are planning to do is very difficult and you will not succeed. The webs of sins and transgressions are very strong and you will not be able to subdue Satan. You must increase holiness and continue fasting and dunking in the lake otherwise you will fail and Satan will damage and harm you. Know that your intentions are welcome if you succeed. But my advice to you is stop right now; because you cannot overpower the web of evil”.
Rabbi Joseph Della Reina said, “Please Master, do not discourage me. I took an oath that I’ll not return home till I raise the Holy Divine Spirit from the dust”. When Eliyahu heard this, he said, “You and your disciples need to go out in the field for 21 days, and eat, only enough to survive. Accustom yourselves to minimal portions of food and every evening steadily reduce the portion. After 21 days, fast for 3 days and nights.
On the third day, after the afternoon prayers, summon the Angel Sandlaphon, (who directs worthy prayers directly to God) with his entourage to appear. When they come, throw yourselves on the ground and welcome the Angel Sandlaphon. Request him to strengthen you. Immediately he will inquire why you called upon him and what you are doing? Beg Sandlaphon to strengthen you and to help you to have the power of speech. Sandlaphon will tell you what you should do. He prevents Satan from entering holy places, and he knows the spots where one can gather his strength”.
As soon as Eliyahu left, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina gathered his students and did all that Eliyahu instructed. Day and night, they followed Eliyahu’s instructions without fail. They disconnected from physical needs of this world and were only occupied with the spiritual exercises. On the third day, after 21 days, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students covered themselves in Tefillin and Talit, including their heads, and prayed with total devotion. They concentrated on the holy formula of God’s holy Name. They raised their voice to Heaven and with all human strength they possessed, they said, “Answer us, O mystical God, Answer us”and no sooner did they finish than Sandlaphon came, together with his army, on fiery chariots and fiery horses while flaming fires filled the whole countryside field.. Sandlaphon said, “What do you want, worms? Who gave you the audacity to shake the upper and lower worlds? Have self-respect and return home, lest we burn you with our breath”.
Rabbi Joseph Della Reina bowed down to the ground and removed his shoes. His students still on the ground were unable to rise. Rabbi Joseph Della Reina said, ” I do this for the sake of Elokim, the Kings of all Kings”. “Please, I entreat you, holy one with holy forces, to agree to help me wage war and wipe out the evildoers. Instruct me what I must do to remove the rule of wickedness from earth”.
Sandlaphon replied, “Your words and actions are proper, and God be with you! All of us Angels, wait in anticipation to avenge God’s Great Honor. But know this, everything you have done till now is nothing. Because who can overcome the great powers of Satan and his forces? If you would know the high powers his forces reached, you would not attempt to do this. For who can prevail against him except the Holy Blessed One until the time comes to fulfill His word.
I have come due to the Great Holy Name you have pronounced. But what can I do for you? I am unable to learn the great strength of Satan and what his rise and fall depends on. None know this except Metatron. If you were frightened of me, how will you be able to exist in their presence/? In truth if you can accomplish this great task of wiping out Satan, your reward will be great and no one can stand next to your holiness”.
Rabbi Della Reina answered, “I am young and unworthy for who am I that can stand in front of the Angels. But I am willing to sacrifice myself for the Holy and Blessed One. Therefore, instruct me how to increase holiness and add sanctity and purity and what Holy Name to use to conjure the Holy Angels?”. Sandlaphon spoke again, “Hear my words and God be with you. Continue for 40 days the immersions, fasts, and purification of thoughts. Do not stray from holy thoughts for a split second. Decrease the portion of food till your body will need very little to survive. After 40 days, pronounce the 72 letter Holy Name with great concentration. Then you will be able to call upon Metatron, Prince of the Presence. With this Sandlaphon and his forces went heavenwards.
They went to a mountain near Miron and sat in a cave and did as they were instructed by Angel Sandlaphon for 40 days. When the 40 days were completed, they went out to the wilderness where they proclaimed the 72 letter name of God and called upon Metatron. When they pronounced the Great Name, the earth shook and there was lightning and thunder. The heavens opened and Metatron came down. Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students kept their hands linked together, and all fell onto the ground, and did not let go of one another.
As soon as Metatron with his camp came down to earth, they began to speak in great fury. “Who and where is the one who dared to use the Royal Scepter? Speak up, answer, you foul odor drop of sperm. What is this great alarm that you brought us down?” Rabbi Joseph Della Reina was unable to answer and the Angel Metatron touched him. He faintly whispered, “What can this worthless slave say in the presence of such pure and holy angels? Rabbi Reina opened his mouth and said, “God Almighty knows that I did not do this insincerely but only for God”.
The Angels answered him, “Only God Himself can do this when the time comes!” Your will is appreciated but the time has not yet arrived. Yet, in view of your will and wisdom and knowledge of hidden secrets that God granted you, we are compelled to instruct you which way to go. Listen carefully and pay close attention. Go to mount Seir. Whatever you do on the bottom of Mount Seir, we will perform on the top. When you go to Mount Seir, continue to be holy as you are now. You have almost attained the position of Angels. You have forgotten the ways of the physical world. Along the way, you will encounter a large horde of black dogs; know that Satan is sending them to you to confuse you. Have no fear and pronounce the Name of the Holy One that contains 52 letters.
Concentrate on the Holy Name and the dogs will flee away from you. From there, climb on top of the mountain, you will find a great mass of snow up to the skies. Concentrate on the hidden secrets of the verse “Have you entered the treasuries of snow”, and the mountain will be moved from its place. Go forward and you will see a wall that reaches from the earth to the sky. Take a knife in your hand and inscribed on it ‘Sword of God’ and with the knife, cut into the iron and make an opening and enter thru it. Make sure not to close the opening till all of you pass safely through the opening. After passing through the opening, it will close. After that, go forward till you reach Mount Seir”.
Then let the Holy Name be prepared, written, and engraved on a plate of lead. After this, you will be able to go wherever you desire on Mount Seir. You will find the wicked spirits Samael and Lilith in forms of black dogs, a male and female. Do not be afraid. On the male, set the engraved plate with the Holy Name and set the other plate on the female. Put a rope around the male and female with the plates attached, and they will follow you with their camp.
“Then God’s desire will be achieved by you and you will bring Samael and Lilith to judgment on Mount Seir. Then there will be the great sound of the Shofar and the Messiah will appear to purify the earth from all impurities. The Holy One and Blessed One will slaughter the spirit of the impurity and all the righteous will be present. Then there will be the Great Redemption.”
“Be very careful and do all that we instructed you, and if you successfully do this, how great is your portion. Don’t lose concentration on holiness for a split second; and be very careful when you rope the dogs, Samael and Lilith, and don’t listen to them. They will cry and plead from you to give them food or drink but don’t listen to them; and don’t give them anything. Don’t believe them and pay no attention to them. With that, the angels flew heavenwards.
When the angels ascended, Rabbi Josef rose. They were overjoyed and excited and quickly prepared everything the angels told them and walked towards Mount Seir. On the way, they saw a horde of vicious black dogs coming towards them, they did as they were instructed and the dogs scattered and disappeared. After this, they encountered a great mountain of snow and did what they were instructed to do and the mountain shifted. Then they said the other holy formula combination and the mountain completely vanished. They walked on for 2 more days, and on the third day they saw a great ocean that its waves reached the skies. As soon as they said the holy formula combination, the ocean dried and they walked through it, on dry land. When they reached the wall that reached from the earth till heaven, Rabbi Josef took the knife with the Holy Name engraved on it and sliced the iron wall for an opening. When the last of the students passed thru, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina let go of the opening but the last student was slow and his leg got caught. Rabbi Joseph took out the knife and sliced the iron wall open around the student’s leg and he passed through. They climbed Mount Seir to its summit.
When they found the crater within which were ruins, they heard dogs barking. They entered one of the ruins and saw 2 gigantic black dogs, a male and female. When they approached the dogs, the dogs jumped on them to swallow them. But Rabbi Joseph Della Reina had the engraved plates in his hand and with his right hand, after placing the plates, put the rope around the dogs’ neck, with the plates attached to it. As soon as the rope was tied around them, they removed their shapes of the dogs and put on their own shape which was humankind except their wings, which were full of eyes, like flames. They begged for food or drink but Rabbi Joseph Della Reina did as was instructed and paid no attention to their pleads.
With tremendous happiness, they walked towards Mount Seir, with Samael and Lilith behind them, tied in a rope, crying. Rabbi Joseph was overjoyed and said, “Who would have thought that I would have succeeded in capturing Satan”. Satan replied, “Indeed, we are in your hands and you can do whatever you desire. Give us something to eat or drink because otherwise we will never make it to Mount Seir”. But Rabbi Joseph refused to give them anything, as he was instructed.
As they approached Mount Seir, Rabbi Joseph took out the spices to smell it. And Satan told him, “If you won’t give us food or drink, at least give us to sniff the spices”. And Rabbi Joseph handed them a bit of the spice, and at that moment, Satan blew a spark of fire from his mouth and burned the incense, including the spice in Rabbi Joseph’s pocket. The vapor entered Satan’s nostrils and snapped off the rope from his neck and flung the engraved plates from him and began striking Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students: two of the students immediately died, while another two students lost their minds.
Rabbi Joseph Della Reina remained alone with 1 student, both weary, exhausted and astounded. He didn’t know that by giving the incense to Satan it was like idol-worship and all his holy strength disappeared. He didn’t listen and keep the angel’s warning not to give anything to Satan.
That moment, the mountain began to smoke amid gloom and darkness and a divine voice came out and said, “Oy to you, Joseph, Oy to your soul that you did not do as you were commanded. You engaged in idolatry and offered incense to Satan and now he will pursue you out of this world and out of the next world!”
Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his remaining students buried the 2 dead students. A demon had possessed the other two students and they perished in great suffering that the demon inflicted on them. After this, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina went to the city of Sidon, where he settled. His ways turned evil. He saw that he did not succeed and since he heard from the Divine Voice that he lost this world and the world-to-come, he made a covenant with the evil Lilith and handed himself to her and she became his wife. He polluted everything in every way possible and used the Holy Name to do evil. Every night he conjured spirits and devils to fetch him whatever his heart desired.
He continued his evil ways with more and more women until he had the wife of a king. He had her brought to him every night and in the morning, he would order the demons to return her. One day the queen told her husband, “Every night I dream that I’m in a certain place and a man sleeps with me, but I find myself in the morning in my bed”. When the King heard this, he summoned his magicians and placed them on guard at the queen’s home. That night, the demons came to take the queen and the guards noticed them at once. They forced the demons to tell them why they came at night to take the queen and the demons answered that they were ordered by Joseph from the city of Sidon. When the king heard this, he sent someone asking that Joseph be sent to him alive immediately. When Joseph realized that his deeds were known to the king, even before the minister arrived in Sidon, he threw himself into the ocean and died.
As for me, the fifth student, I remained alone and on a sickbed all my life. There is no remedy for my ailment nor do I have any reprieve from the demons. I have written this tale as a warning that no one should attempt to bring the Redemption before its time.
The warning is clear. There are many examples of things that in retrospect should have been anticipated yet weren’t. Even the most sincere, highly pious, wise and well intentioned individual who is capable of overcoming giant obstacles; cannot anticipate how to act faultlessly all the time. Even the ideal unexpectedly fails when it is actually attained.
Rabbi Joseph Della Reina was warned over and over: yet he persisted because the goal of universal justice and peace was so desirable. His failure did not leave him wiser; it left him a disillusioned and degenerate sinner. After all “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” (Pascal)