2.J.4 From David b. Joshua Maimonides, presented by Paul Fenton


Of the first station [of the spiritual path] which is that of illumination (zehîrût).

The Hebrew term zehîrût (‘meticulousness’) can have two meanings. Firstly, it can signify ‘scrupulousness’, i.e. striving to reach the goal by deploying painstaking efforts [7a] or by abandoning thoughtlessness and renouncing a life of leisure. Secondly, it can signify ‘enlightenment’ as in the expressions of brightness (zôhar) in the verses ‘brightness of the firmament’ (Dan. 12:3), and ‘brightness as the colour of amber’ (Ezek. 8:2). Hence the term zehîrût designates illumination and the individual who reaches this station is called zâhîr or ‘illuminate’. The latter refers to the seeker of the soul’s enlightenment and the spirit’s illumination through luminous intuitions, divine sparks, and mental flashes.

This [state] comes about through constant contemplation of the angelic world, intense remembrance of God, subtle meditation of the world of sanctity, and diminution of food and sleep. Thereupon, these lights shine upon his pure heart in accordance with his progress through the successive stages and stations, each more noble and exalted than its predecessor. For spiritual effort and illumination lead to further enlightenment [7b] and irradiance, awakening an inner desire to receive this holy effulgence, divine blaze and angelic flashes, and inciting the individual to prepare himself for their encounter. Each arousal is conducive to illumination and each illumination is conducive to further arousal. On this account our Sages stated: ‘illumination leads to zeal’ (TB ‘Abodâh Zârâh 20b), i.e. this station is conducive to the following one.

Of the second station which is zeal (zerîzût).

This term too is liable to two interpretations, the first of which signifies ‘swiftness of motion’, ‘agility’ and ‘sprightliness’. The individual who reaches this station is calledzârîz, i.e. one who speedily manages his affairs, his time and his wishes, and dispatches them with haste and vigor in accordance with the rabbinic usage of this word (TB Makkôt 23a) (TB Qiddûshîn 22b).-(Targûm Ex. 12:33). Thus the zârîz is an adept who progresses along the mystical Path through the strength of his resolve, being prepared to undergo this discipline, and striving to [8a] emulate and rise to the most exalted of its stations.

The second meaning derives from Aramaic and signifies to ‘bind’, ‘attach’ and ‘tie’ (Targûm Gen. 22:3) (TB ‘Erûbîm 18b)(TB Shabbat 8b). Since resolve is defined as ‘the undertaking of a possible action without neglect’, therefore the zârîz is one who makes a conscious agreement between himself and his Creator, to act exclusively in a specific manner […]. It is in light of the meaning [‘to bind’] that the following statement of the Rabbis is to be understood: ‘Zeal leads to abstinence’(TB ‘Abodâh Zârâh 20b) which corresponds to the saying in Abôt(3:17): ‘vows are a fence to abstinence’, for ‘vow’, ‘prohibition’ and ‘zeal’ are synonyms [whose Hebrew etymology] denotes an act of tightening, fastening, or binding. Undoubtedly, this leads to abstinence, the next station, for whoever undertakes the observance of duties and voluntary acts, vows and oaths, is compelled thereby to rise towards the following steps on the ladder of spirituality.


The present text is a translation from the Judaeo-Arabic work al-Murshid ila t-tajarrud or ‘Guide to Detachment’ by David b. Joshua Maimonides (Egypt circa 1335-1410), last known nagîd (community leader) belonging to the famous Maimonides’ dynasty. The Guide to Detachment is a practical manual for the spiritual life divided into progressive stages based on the Talmudic dictum by R. Phineas b. Ya’ir : “Study leads to meticulousness, meticulousness leads to zeal, zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to restraint, restraint leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to meekness, meekness leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the holy spirit, the holy spirit leads to life eternal. Saintliness is the greatest of all of these” (TB ‘Abôdâh Zârâh20b). The author construes these principles as the stages of the spiritual path or ladder of ascension similar to those found in Sufi manuals. In this opening chapter, he specifies the prerequisites necessary to embarking upon the spiritual path. Having already discussed the initial prerequisite of knowledge, for ‘the ignorant cannot be pious’ (Aboth 2, 6), David Maimonides presents a very original interpretation of the term zehîrût (‘meticulousness’). In addition to its classical meaning of the ‘attentiveness’ which stems from knowledge, he lends it the sense of ‘enlightenment’. Interestingly, he uses as a locus probans the verse used in the opening passage of the Zohar, of ‘Book of Brightness’! However, David’s inspiration here is not Kabbalistic but Sufic, ultimately deriving from the ishrâqî or ‘illuminative’ spirituality of Suhrawardi (executed in 1191), for whom progress in speculative knowledge and spiritual illumination are intimately bound. Thus the starting point of spiritual awareness is a spark, an illumination which serves as a catalyser for the quest. This spark results from a meditative attitude – ‘constant contemplation of the angelic world’, ‘intense remembrance of God’, ‘subtle meditation of the world of sanctity’, – coupled with a corporeal discipline involving the reducing of one’s physical needs such as food and sleep.
The latter point is projected into the following step along the spiritual path, that of ‘zeal’, again taken in its etymological meaning of ‘binding’, such as that resulting from the taking of vows. Again using rabbinic sources, but also Sufi dicta, the author insists on the central necessity of ‘abstinence’ if progress is to be made along the spiritual path.

This text was chosen in particular for its usefulness as reading material in an interreligious encounter between Jews and Muslims. It demonstrates how the author, a scion of one of the great rabbinic dynasties of Eastern Jewry, freely interprets rabbinical ethics in the light of Sufi discipline, providing us with a lesson in openness to religious otherness, while highlighting the spiritual principles our traditions hold in common. Participants would be invited to look up and discuss the Biblical, Talmudic and Sufi references, omitted here in their full form.