The danger of narrow-minded pious political nationalist leadership in Kabbalah

With the plan for another election in the fall, Israel will have held elections 5 times in 3.5 years. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians rejoiced as one of the few coalitions in recent decades that didn’t include them fell apart, because the coalition government was about to open the kashrut certification market to competition, and a proposed new law would similarly allow conversions to Judaism be performed by other religious authorities besides the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

The narrow minded focus of Ultra-Orthodox parties and politicians is a re-enactment of the unrestricted hatred that ruled in Jerusalem in the decades prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple. Jewish religious nationalist zealots and mild mannered rabbis who were silent when the leadership became corrupt led to a tragic outcome.

The Jewish tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ started with Nathan the prophet’s public condemnation of king David for adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:1-15) and continued for over ten centuries, until the generation of John the baptist, who openly denounced king Herod for his illegal marriage. (Matthew 14:3-10)

All this changed during the generations after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C. E. For the next 1878 years there were no Jewish political rulers, and Jews were always governed by non-Jewish kings and governors. During this period Jews ruled their own communities by virtue of rabbinic interpretations and expansions of the Biblical legal system; and the leadership of great religious scholars; and the occasional personal persuasiveness of local saintly rabbis and Kabbalists.

Eventually, the powerful influence of saintly rabbis reached a very high point with the rise of Spanish Kabbalah in the 13th century; and then was greatly expanded and popularized with the rise of Hassidism in the mid 18th century. This stimulated a reaction to the stories of spiritually powerful rabbis who could influence socio-political events, and there appeared a widespread warning legend about an otherwise unknown Kabbalist named Joseph della Reyna.

He was a rare tragic folk-hero, who emerged after the final turbulent years of Spanish Jewry prior to the expulsion in 1492 of all Jews who refused conversion, perhaps sometime during the first two generations of exiles after the expulsion. The legend of Joseph della Reyna become popular in Jewish tradition. In traditional Jewish literature tragedy befalls those who die at the hands of their tormentors.

But Joseph della Reyna was caught in the snare of his own Messianic expectations, powerful mystical visions, and passionate desires for an ideal world of political independence, justice and peace. The narratives of his battles 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 the legend in a book written in Jerusalem in 1519. 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 d Joseph della Reyna in their writings.

In these circles the tale was shifted to the eastern Mediterranean and to Tzfat. In the seventeenth century a fuller rendition the story was written down by Solomon Navarro (1606-1673) and was incorporated by the Egyptian chronicler Joseph ben Isaac Sambari (1640-1703) into his Chronicle of Joseph (completed in 1672). This is a short version of the legend.

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina lived near Tzfat and desperately wanted to bring the long awaited Redemption of the Jewish People. He took 5 of his most loyal students who were very knowledgeable in Kabbalah and told them: I am resolved to use the secrets of Torah to remove all impurities from this world and bring the Redemption of the 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 Kabalistic Book of Zohar there the whole night.

When Rabbi Joseph Della Reina slept, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai came to him in a dream and asked, “Why give yourself such a difficult task which you will not be able to carry out?” Rabbi Joseph Della Reina replied that God knows his intentions are pure so Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai blessed him to succeed. The following morning, they went to an open field, fasted all day and focused only on Kabbalistic prayers. They entered lake Teveria 26 times a day for 3 days and 3 nights, and did not eat or drink anything.

By the power of their prayer, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai adjured Prophet Eliyahu to appear. Right away Eliyahu appeared and asked them what was so urgent that they used special esoteric 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; you will not be able to subdue Satan. Know that your intentions are welcome if you succeed. But my advise to you is stop right now because you will not be able to 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, and steadily reduce the portion. After the 21 days, fast for 3 days and nights. On the third day, after the afternoon prayers, summon the Angel Sandalphon, (who is in charge of directing worthy prayers directly to God) with his entourage to appear.

“When they come, throw yourselves on the ground and welcome Angel Sandalphon. Request him to strengthen you. Immediately he will inquire why you called upon him and what you are doing? Beg Sandalphon to strengthen you and help you have the power of speech. He will tell you what you should do. He prevents Satan from entering holy places, and he knows the spots where one can gather strength for the battle”.

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. On the third day, after the 21 days, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students meditated on the holy letters of God’s holy Name. They raised their voice to Heaven, “Answer us, O mystical God, Answer us”. No sooner did they finish than Sandalphon came, together with his army, on fiery chariots and fiery horses while flaming fires filled the whole countryside field.

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students shook, trembled and fell to the ground, while their hearts melted with fear. Sandlaphon said, “What do you want, worms that you are? Who gave you the audacity to shake the upper and lower worlds? 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 the Kings of all Kings.” “Please, I entreat you to help me wage war and wipe out the evildoers. Instruct me what I must do to remove the rule of wickedness from earth.” Sandalphon replied, “Your words and actions are proper. God be with you! All of us Angels, wait in anticipation to revenge God’s Great Honor.

“But know this, everything you have done till now is as nothing. Because who can overcome the great powers of the Satan and his forces? If you knew the great powers his forces reach, you would not attempt to do this. Only the Holy Blessed One can prevail against the Satan when the time comes to fulfill God’s promised redemption. So 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, Prince of the Presence. If you were frightened of me, how will you be even able to exist in his 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 Joseph 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 Blessed One. Therefore, instruct me how to increase holiness and add sanctity and purity; and which of God’s Esoteric Names to use to conjure the Holy Angels?”

Sandalphon 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 Holy Name that contains 72 letters, with great concentration. When you do this, you will be able to call upon Metatron, Prince of the Presence. With this Sandalphon and his forces went heavenwards.

They left the field and went to a mountain near Miron and sat in a cave and did as they were instructed by Angel Sandalphon for 40 days. When the 40 days were completed, they went out to the wilderness by a place near the source of the Kishon river, where they bathed for 40 days. They marked a circle on the ground and entered inside it linking hands together and formed a circle. They proclaimed the 72 letter name of God and called upon Metatron, Prince of the Presence. The earth shook and there was lightening and thunders. 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 spoke in great fury. “Who 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 the Holy and Blessed One 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, 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. In order to eliminate bring Satan’s barriers down, this is what you must do: When you leave here, go to mount Seir, we will arrive in mount Seir before you.

“Whatever operation you do on the bottom of the Mount Seir, we will perform the same on the top. When you go to Mount Seir, continue to be holy as you are now. Your souls have risen to a great height and you have almost attained the position of Angels. 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. From there, climb on top of the mountain, you will find a great mass of snow. Concentrate on the hidden secrets of the verse “Have you entered the treasuries of snow,” and the mountain will be moved from its place. Continue with these concentrations until you reach the barrier of the ocean, whose waves reach the skies.

“Pronounce the verse, “Ascribe to God, O you sons of the Mighty”, and the ocean will dry up and you will be able to cross it on dry land. Go forward and you will see a wall that reaches from the earth to the sky.

“Take a knife in your hand and inscribe upon 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 thru the opening. After passing thru the opening, it will close. After that, go forward till you reach Mount Seir.”

“At that time, we will fling Satan from his seat and he will be entrusted into your hands. Then let the Holy Name be prepared, written, and engraved on a plate of lead. You will find the wicked spirits Samael and Lilith in forms of black dogs, 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. May God protect and guide you.” With that, the angels flew heavenwards.

When the angels ascended, Rabbi Joseph della Reyna rose. His students, who were still on the ground, were unable to rise till the angels left. 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 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. 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 thru 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 thru. 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, 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 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 the 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 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 giving incense to Satan 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 for 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 student buried the 2 dead students. A demon had possessed the other two students and they perished in great suffering. After this, Rabbi Joseph della Reina went to the city of Sidon, where he settled. His ways turned evil. He saw that he had 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 Holy Name to do evil. Every night he would conjure 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 come nightly 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 a minister to the city of Sidon with gifts to the Lord of Sidon, 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, no matter how holy and sincere, should attempt to rebuild the Holy Temple, or bring the long awaited 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 can unexpectedly fail when it is actually attained. Rabbi Joseph Della Reina was warned over and over: yet he persisted because the goal of independence, universal justice and international peace was so desirable. His failure did not leave him wiser; but it left him a disillusioned and degenerate sinner.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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