The Custom of Azharot on Shavous
by R Eliezer Brodt
by R Eliezer Brodt
The Yom tov of Shavous called Yom Matan Torahsenu as it is the day we received the Torah thousands of years ago at Har Sinai. It has many minhaghim that we do to remind us of this such as putting up grass and flowers or eating dairy dishes. Another minhag which many Jews have is to say azharot today. In this post I would like to discuss a bit of interesting bibliographic information about some specific azharot and their authors. On this topic, we will (1) discuss the numbering of the mitzvos in general; (2) next the meaning of azharot; (3) those who took exception to reciting the azharot; and (4) specifically which azharot are frowned upon.
In order to understand this topic a small introduction is needed. According to most opinions Jews are commanded to follow 613 mitzvos from the Torah. While 613 the most common number used, it is actually disputed by a few people. R Yeruchem Fischel Perlow records that R Yonah Ibn Ganach questioned the number. A little later than R. Ibn Ganach, we find that the Ibn Ezra questions this number and does so at great length in his Yesod Moreh, Shar Shenei (pg 91 and onwards). After that we find that the famous kabbalist R. Yosef Gikatilla, says (in his K'lalei Hamitzvos Erech Manah) that it’s impossible to give a number to the mitzvos. The Ramban also questions this number at length in the beginning of his work on the mitzvos. Gersonides (RaLBaG) in his commentary on shmos also questions the number (pg 76 Mossad Harav Kook edition). If we now skip a few hundred years, there is an interesting statement, attributed to the Gra, recorded by his brother R Avrohom at the beginning of his work Ma’alos haTorah where he has the Gra saying that the 613 is only the shoroshim (see there at length and the menucha vekedusha pg 20). R Shlomo Zalman Auerbach writes that this is the reason why we do not find that the Gra wrote on this area although he wrote on every other area of torah (Halichos Shlomo, Shavous, pg 374) due to its unending nature.
Aside from the above opinions, the 613 number has been accepted by most. After one agrees on a final number, the next question is commandments are included in this number. There was two main groups of numbers counters - the BaHaG who gave one listing of the 613 mitzvos and for a few hundred years this was the accepted method of counting the commandments. Then along came the Rambam with many arguments on the BaHaG’s method of counting which he devotes his introduction to his Sefer haMitzvos where he explains why he why he argued against the other shitos and counted the ones he did. Afterwards a whole collection of literature has been written on this topic from many rishonim and achronim.
Besides for the actual count of the mitzvos, there were many composers in the era of the Geonim and Rishonim who composed poems (piyyutim) counting the mitzvos some of these poems are known as azharot.
First, what is the meaning of the word Azharot? Professor Ezra Fleischer writes (Shirat Hakodesh Haivrit B'yemi Habenyayimm pg 73) that it’s not clear from where did the name אזהרת come from, it appears to be the opening sentence of a piyyut now lost. Others point out that אזהרת is the gematriah of 613. Moritz Steinschneider writes (Jewish Literature pg 159) that these piyyutim were based on halachic subjects which instruction was to be given on the Shabbos before the Yom tovim therefore they were called azharot meaning instructions. There are also azharot said on Shabboas Hagodal. A sample of one from R Klonomius can be found in the Shomer Zion Haneman (issue 95-97 year תרטו) (see also Davidsin Otzar Hashira Vhapiyyut vol 2 # 1042). Professor Ezra Fleischer also writes (Shirat Hakodesh Haivrit B'yemi Habenyayimm pg 384) that others such as R Yehudah Halevi wrote azharot for Pesach.
Zunz says the earliest azharot we have are from the end of Eighth century called אתה הנחלת (see also Otzar Haseforim from Ben Yakov pg 33). Amongst the other early ones we have are from R Saddiah Goan, R Binyomin ben Shmuel, R Eliyha haZaken R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel and R. Yitchack Albargeloni.
The Chida in Shem Hagedolim says that the recitation of azharot on Shavous, is done by most Jews. Much earlier we find in the Tzeda laDerach (mamar 4 klal 4 perek 6) that in Spain they said from R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel’s and in Ashkenaz and France they said the one from R. Eliyahu Hazakan The Abudrham (p. 246) also brings that they said from R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel. Even earlier we find both the Siddur Rav Amram Goan (Goldshmidt edition pg 131) and R Saddiah Goan (pg 156 and onwards) also discuss when exactly azharot were said during mussaf. R Saadiah Goan went even further he writes that he saw that everyone says during mussaf the 613 mitzvos from a piyyut called אתה הנחלתה (the earliest known azharot) but saw that it was missing a bunch of mitzvos so he composed a completely new version including all the mitzvos. One of the versions he composed was showing the 613 mitzvos in the asres hadebros (see the article of R Shmual Askenazi in Kovetz Beis Aaron V'yisroel 1991 issue 5 pg 109-114).
The Shelah, Sedar Hayom, and Chida bring that there were those that said the azharot of R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel when they stayed up Shavous night (See Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz Vol 3 pg 296-298).
The reason for saying the azharot on Shavous suggests Profesor Frankel is perhaps based on a medrash which says that at matan torah the Jews were told after every mitzvah do you accept it with all its applications and after each one they said yes so it could be on shavous the day we got the torah we do this as its like a review of what happened than (Goldshmidt Machzaor Pg 11).
Aside from all the above, not everyone was so enamored with azharot. Two people specifically – Ibn Ezra and the Rambam – were against at least some azharot.
The Ibn Ezra writes in his Yesod Moreh (Bar Ilan 2002 pg 107) “that the authors of azharot are like people who count the blades of grass mentioned in the medical books not realizing the purpose of each one thus these people count the same thing twice because its mentioned twice.” The Rambam writes in his introduction to Sefer haMitzvos while talking about the different minyan hamitzvos that “there are many azharot from Spain and you can not blame them for making mistakes as they were composers not Rabanim.”
It is possible that the Rambam’s opinion was influenced by Ibn Ezra. In the Rambam’s last will and testament, he spoke highly of Ibn Ezra and recommended his son R. Abraham study Ibn Ezra. (See the Koreh haDoros pg 19 and R Emanuel Abuhav in his Bemavak Al Archa Shel Torah pg 247). But, using this source would be a mistake. As was already noted by the Mahrshal who questions whether in fact the will attributed to the Rambam is in fact from the Rambam. Similarly, R Yakov Emden in his Mitpachas Seforim (pgs 101-02) also writes that it must be a forgery. Today, Yitchzach Shilat, has demonstrated conclusively that in fact the will, attributed to the Rambam is a forgery. (Iggros Harambam vol 2 pg 697-698; see also G Scholem in Mechkeria Kabblah Vol 1 pg 190). While the will may not be real, this is still some evidence that the Rambam was influenced by the Ibn Ezra’s work Yesod Moreh in general (see R Yeruchem Fischel Perlow in his introduction to his work on R Saddaih Goan pg 15).
Setting aside where the Rambam got this anti-azharot idea, the next issue is which azharot were the Rambam and Ibn Ezra disapproving of?
R Chaim Heller in his notes (#34) on the Sefer Hamitzvos references a teshuva written by the Radbaz (vol. 3 siman 645) where the Radbaz writes that the Rambam is referring to Reb Shlomo Ibn Gabriel. R Y. Kapach also writes the Rambam is referring to R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel and R Yitzchack Albargeloni. The Sefer HaYechsin (pg 219) also assumes the Rambam was referring to both R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel and R Yitzchack Albargeloni. The Koreh Hadoros when quoting the Rambam’s above statement about the azharot takes this attribution one step further where the Koreh Hadoros just includes in the quote from the Rambam R. Shlomo Ibn Gabriel and R Yitzchack Albargeloni making it appear as if the Rambam says these names specifically. Landshuth, in his Amudei Avodah also assumes the Rambam is referring to R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel (pg 313).
The attribution to R. Shlomo Ibn Gabriel is problematic, mainly because it seems both him and his piyyutim where highly regarded. Although the Tashbatz already writes in his Zohar Harokea (a commentary on azharot of R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel) that this composer was not a great expert in Talmud; most others dispute this characterization. The Rogachaver Goan in his notes (see also Tiferes Zvi on the Zohar Vol 1 pg 189) on the Tashbatz writes that it’s a chutzpah to write such a thing on this amazing composer! [In a joking manner I wanted to suggest its strange that the Rogatchver would stick up for a a rishon as its well known he argued on Rishonim all the time so I wanted to suggest that he wanted to defend R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel so that he would be able to argue on the Tashbatz.]
But one thing we see from this for certain is that the Rogatchver held he was a great Talmud Chacham. Further more there is a different teshuvah (vol 3 siman 532) from the Radvaz where he writes that R. Shlomo Ibn Gabriel was a great person and Ibn Gabriel’s words are holy! This would seem to contradict the previously quoted words of the Radbaz. R. Matsyahu Strashun (Mivchar Kesavim Pg 116-118) suggests because of this apparent contradiction and some others that the Radbaz lived a very long life of 110 years and he wrote over 2000 teshuvot so its possible that over this great length of time he forgot his own earlier words.
R. Shlomo Ibn Gabriel’s contemporaries also held him in high regard. The Ravad (Sefer Hakablah pg 81) Meiri (Sefer Hakablah, Ofek ed., pg 136) Avudraham and Yechsin all call him a great chacham. In one place the Sefer haYeuchsin writes that לא קם כמוהו לפניו ואחריו. The Chida also writes that it can not be that the Rambam was referring to R Shlomo ibn Gabriel. R Yeruchem Fischel Perlow in his work on the Sefer haMitzvos of the Rasag he calls R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel a Godal. The Yechsin writes (and from there the Tzemach Dovid and Koreh Hadoros) that he was the rebbi of Rashi! However R Shmuel Askenazi already points out that the years are impossible because Rashi was ten years old living in France when R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel died in Spain (see his notes to the Kav Hayashar pg 20).
The Kav Hayashar writes that R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel was a great mekubal. The Sefer Metzref Lechochma even (pg 9b) brings that he created a woman golem! (see M Idel, Golem pg 200 and 343) This story shows he was familiar with kabblah maseyois.
There is a famous story brought down by many people [Shalsheles Hakablah (pg 89) Yesod Yosef (perek 87) Kav Hayashar (perek 86) Sefer Zechirah (pg 243) others bring down this story with R Shlomo Alkabetz see Amodei Ha'avodah pg 310.] in regard to R. Shlomo Ibn Gabriel’s death. A non-Jew was jealous of Ibn Gabriel’s wisdom so he killed him burying him under his fig tree. In time, the tree started bearing excellent figs, so great were these figs, that the king heard about it. The king wanted to know what his trick to get such good figs. The fig tree owner obviously did not want to reveal his secret. The king was not satisfied and had the fig tree owner tortured. The fig tree owner eventually confessed that he killed a Jew and buried him there. The king had the fig tree owner killed.
The Kav Hayashar and others use the above story to demonstrate the authors of our piyyutim were great people so we should be say them having the authors name in mind and that his merits should help us. However R. Shmuel Ashkenazi has already pointed out based on the Sefer Tachmoni that this story is not true and instead, R. Shlomo Ibn Gabriel died at the age of twenty nine from a harsh sickness in 1040 (see his notes to the Kav Hayashar pg 19 not the date 1070 given by the Sefer Yuchsin and Zinberg Toldos Hasafros B'yisroel vol 1 pg 72 For more on his sickness see Chaim Shirman in Toldos Hashira Haivrit b'Sefard Hamuslamit pg 265-268).
Abraham Haberman brings down in his Toldos Hapiyyut V'haShira (vol 1 pg 179) a legend from a Temani manuscript that describes the story behind R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel writing of his azharot. R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel was learning in a Yeshivia where the Rebbe had a daughter of marriageable age. The Rebbi said who ever gives me a new fruit can marry her. That night R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel wrote the azharot gave it to the Rebbe and the Rebbe announced the engagement. They got married eruv Shavous!
Another piyyut which R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel is famous for is Keter Malchus which in nusach Sefard machzorim it was said on Yom Kippur at night others say it during the day (see I. Davidson, Otzar Hashira Vehapiyyut # 581). Many people discuss how there are many kabblastic concepts in this piyyut (see Chaim Shirman, Toldos Hashira Hivrit B'sefard Hamuslmit pg 331-345).
Besides for composing songs R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel authored a few seforim one called Tikin Midos Hanefesh others attribute to him the Mivchar Pinenim. However besides for this he authored another sefer which was a classic in philosophy called Mekor Chaim. An interesting thing happened with it it was translated to Latin called Fons Vitae and it became a world classic but the authors name was written as Avicebron and know one knew that a Jew was the real author. In 1846, S Munk figured out that it’s really from R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel and he printed it. Eventually it was printed in Hebrew. There has been much written on this sefer to show that R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel was familiar with kabblah (see G. Scholem, Mechkeria Kabblah Vol 1 pg 39-66).
[For more on R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel see Elbogen, Hatefilah B'yisroel pg 258-259: Zinberg in Toldos Safrus B'yisroel vol 1 pg 34-73: A Haberman Toldos Hapiyyut Vehashira vol 1 pg 175-180: Chaim Shirman in Toldos Hashira Hivrit bsefard hamuslmit pg 257-345.]
From all this, it is clear that neither the Rambam or Ibn Ezra were referring to Ibn Gabriel, so we now turn to another candidate - R Yitzchack Albargeloni. R. Albargeloni lived in the era of the Rif and Ravad. The Sefer Hakabalah also says that R. Albargeloni was a great talmid chacham who wrote works on Kesuvos and Eruvin. The Meiri in Sefer HaKabbalah also (pg 134) writes that he was a great chacham. These works of his on kesuvos and eruvin were lost however Profesor Ta-Shma has found some pieces of his in other works of Rishonim (See his Hasafrut Haparshnut Le'talmud volume 1 pg 168-169). Besides for this he also translated the sefer Mekeach umemkar of Rav Hai Goan from Arabic to Hebrew when he was thirty five years old (see amudei havodah pg 126 and Or hachaim Chaim Michael pg 510). Thus the Chida writes the Rambam was not referring to R Yitzchack Albargeloni.
Another early composer of azharot which was recently found active before R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel and R Yitzchack Albargeloni was from R Binyomin Ben Shmuel. Professor Ezra Fleischer printed them in kovetz al yad (vol 11 pg 1-77) R Binyomin lived according to Zunz before Rashi in the first half of the eleventh century. According to some he was the brother of R Yosef Tov Elem. [For more on this Rishon see Fleischer in his extensive intro to his work and Professor A Grossman in Chachmei Tzarfat Harishonim pg 47-51.]
Another early composer of azharot – before R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel was R Eliyayhu Hazakon his azharot are quoted in Tosafot throughout shas and by many other Rishonim so its highly unlikely that the Ibn Ezra and Rambam were referring to him. The Marshal (shut siman 29) and Chida write that he was the brother in law of Rav Hai Goan but recent historians show that he might have been mistaken and he was a bit later than that See Prof A Grossman in Chachmei Tzarfat Harishonim pg 88-90 . [For a listing of the rishonim who bring him down see Amudei Avodah pg 14-15: Chaim Michael, Or Hachaim pg 180: Davidson, Otzar Hashira Vehapiyyut vol 1 #6022 and the introduction of the Mezack Azharot by R Yisroel Shaprio.] Professor A Grossman discusses his life and works at great length in his work Chachmei Tzarfat Harishonim pg 84-107.
Many commentaries were written on these different azharot by Rishonim and Achronhim. On the azharot of R Saadiah Goan we have the excellent encyclopedic work of R Yeruchem Fischel Perlow where he basically has and average of ten pages per every word of R Saadiah Goan he also discusses all the other opinions of the geonim and rishonim on the relevant topics. On the azharot of R Yitzchack Albargeloni we have the commentary Nesiv Mitzvosecha from R Shaul Hakohen from Gerba (he also wrote on the azharot of R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel.) On R Eliyhau Hazakan we have an early in depth commentary from him printed in the Kovetz al Yad (vol 11 part 1) from E Kuffer from some talmidim of talmidi Rabenu Tam. In 1900, R Mordechaei Slutski printed a pirish called Hiddur Zakon. This work has haskamas from the Meshech Chochma and Minchas Borouch. In 1972 R Yisroel Issur Shaprio (son of R Refael Shaprio) wrote an excellent in depth work called Matzack Azharot where he has a lengthy commentary on every word of R Eliyahu Hazakan. In 2001, Yitzhach Meiseles put out a complete critical edition of these azharot.
On the azharot of R shlomo Ibn Gabriel we have many works amongst them the Tashbatz's Zohar Ha'rokeah. The Zohar Ha'rokeah has its own recent extensive edition from R A David including many useful footnotes and the notes of the Shoel U'mashiv, Rogatchver, R Yeruchem Fischel Perlow and R Menachem Kasher. A while back in a sinai a few pieces of the Adres's notes were printed on the azharot of R Shlomo Ibn Gabriel.
Another person who we find wrote a commentary on the azharot of אזהרת ראשית was R Shmuel Chassid the father of R Yehudah Hachassid but they are only in manuscript as of now (see E E Aurbach ed., Arugot Habosem vol 4 pg 89 ) For a complete history of R Shmuel Hachassid see the article from Abraham Epstein in his Ketvim vol 1 pg 247-268.
So at least these few authors can not be the ones the Ibn Ezra and Rambam were referring to. So the Chida writes it must be they were referring to the many other composers of azharot. It is clear that this is the case as the Ramban writes in the beginning of his notes on the Rambam shorshim that there were many piyyutim and azharots written of the mitzvos.
General sources see: Chida in Shem Hagedolim Erech Azharot: Elbogen, Hatefilah b'yisroel pg 163: Extensive introduction of Prof. Yonah Frankel in the Goldshmidt Machzor on Shavous pg 11-14 and pgs 36-48: Introduction of R. A. David to his Zohar Harokeah.