Thursday, August 01, 2013

Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon

Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon
by Rabbi Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

The 25th of Av of this year marks 1000 years since the passing of Rav Shmuel ben Hofni, Gaon Sura in Baghdad. R. Avraham Ibn Daud writes of him: "he too composed many books".[1] It is thus fitting that the Seforim Blog dedicated a page presenting a brief biographical sketch in his memory.[2]

Rav Shmuel ben Hofni HaKohen, was born into an aristocratic family among the hierarchy of the Pumbadithan Yeshiva in Baghdad. His grandfather, Rav Kohen Zedek ben Yosef was appointed Gaon of Pumbaditha by the Resh Galuta, David b. Zakkai in 926. Rav Sherira, in his renowned epistle to Rav Yaakov b. Nissim of Kairouan states: "there was a disagreement between the Yeshiva's Rabbis and Rav Mevasser HaKohen ben Rav Kimoi Gaon was appointed Gaon, with David Nasi appointing Rav Kohen Zedek b. Rav Yosef HaKohen. This split lasted until Elul 921, at which point a peace was brokered between David Nasi and Rav Mevasser Gaon, [with the elite students remaining with Rav Mevasser, while Rav Kohen Zedek had his own students. In Kislev 924 Rav Mevasser passed away] with his students joining Rav Kohen [Zedek], who in turn passed away in 934".[3]

Despite Rav Sherira's report that the elite students remained with Rav Mevasser, we are informed that Rav Saadiah arrived in Baghdad at the time of the split, and joined Rav Kohen Zedek's yeshivah, attaining the honorific 'Alluf'.[4] Hence, Rav Sherira's words should be taken within the context of the author's views.

Upon Rav Mevasser's passing in 942, the two yeshivot were reunited under Rav Shmuel's grandfather, Rav Kohen Zedek. However, the peace was not a lasting one; in 943, with the passing of Rav Hananiah ben Yehudah Gaon (father of Rav Sherira), Rav Aharon Sarjado appointed himself Gaon of the yeshiva, causing yet another split. Rav Shmuel's uncle, Rav Nehemiah, rejected Sarjado's appointment, and formed a break-away yeshiva, himself serving as Gaon and his brother, Rav Hofni (Rav Shmuel's father) serving as Av Beit Din. We have very scanty information regarding Rav Shmuel's father, only his appointment as Av Beit Din as well as a list of works he authored: commentary on Devarim, Commentary on Bamidbar, as well as a work of the Laws of Testimony.[5] In 960, upon Rav Aharon Sarjado's passing, Rav Nehemiah was installed as Gaon of the newly reunited yeshiva. However, upon his passing in 968, with the installation of Rav Sherira as Gaon (taking his father's place), Rav Nehemiah's faction again broke away, forming a concurrent yeshiva, with Rav Shmuel assuming a position as its head.

In a effort to broker a peace between the factions within Pumbaditha, sometime after 987 it was decided to re-open the Suran Yeshiva, which had closed with Rav Saadiah's passing in 944.[6] The first Rosh Yeshiva of the newly reopened Sura was Rav Zemah Zedek ben Yitzchak. Rav Zemah Zedek's son, Rav Paltoi passed away during his father's lifetime, leaving him no heir to the Gaonate. Presumably, Rav Shmuel held the position of Av Beit Din, and upon Rav Zemah Zedek's passing sometime before the turn of the century, Rav Shmuel was appointed Gaon of Sura. Along with the reopening of Sura, a further effort to broker peace between Rav Shmuel's faction and Rav Sherira's was advanced; a political marriage between one of Rav Shmuel's daughters and Rav Sherira's son, Rav Hayya. However, despite all these efforts, the two Gaonim were engaged in lively dispute over the donations sent by the Diaspora. This is witnessed by the letters both sent to the Diaspora, informing them of each Yeshiva's superiority over the other, and entreating them to send their queries as well as support to their respective Yeshiva.

Rav Shmuel passed away on Monday, the 25th of Av, 1013.[7] Upon his passing the Gaonate of Sura passed to Rav Dosa, Rav Saadiah's son, and upon his passing to Rav Shmuel's son, Rav Yisrael.[8]

As mentioned, Rav Shmuel was noted for his literary oeuvre. Through several booklists of his writings preserved in the Genizah, we can estimate his literary output at close to sixty five works.[9] However, despite this prolific volume of accomplishment, almost none of his works have survived outside the Genizah.[10] The most likely explanation for this is the language he wrote in, Judeo-Arabic, which, while having been the lingua-franca of the Mediterranean, was unknown in European lands. This lack of translation most likely prevented his many halachic and exegetic works from being disseminated in European lands.[11]
With the discovery of the Genizah, many Torah Scholars as well as researchers expended great effort to restore Rav Shmuel's former glory to the bookshelves, and were successful in locating many fragments of his works and publishing them. The great many of these articles were collected in one volume,[12] and recently of his several works have been published as critical editions.[13]

1) Sefer HaBagrut, ed. T. Meacham, Yerushalayim 1999[14]

2) Sefer HaGerushin, ed. Z.Y. Shtampfer, Yerushalayim 2009[15]

Additionally, G. Libson published a second article containing further chapters of Sefer HaMitzranut: 'Additional Chapters from Sefer HaMitzranut (Kitab al-Shuf`a) by Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon' (Hebrew), Kabetz al Yad 13 (1996), pp. 43-89.[16]

It bears noting that a new edition of Rav Shmuel's Introduction to the Study of the Mishnah and Talmud is currently in preparation.[17]

Scholars of the Geonim era are aware of Rav Shmuel's rationalistic approach to Torah and Mitzvot. With the publication of D.E. Sklare's groundbreaking volume on Rav Shmuel,[18] his cultural background in M`utazilite Kalaam (Philosophy), has become more readily understood. Rav Shmuel's approach was already noted by his son in law, Rav Hayya in a teshuvah,[19] who takes his father in-law to task for delving too deeply into Arabic Philosophy.[20] Perhaps the most well known comment by Rav Shmuel expressing his rationalistic viewpoint is his commentary to the 'witch of `Ein Dor' episode (1 Sam. 28:3-25). His view is cited by Radak ad loc as well as in the fragmentary commentary of R. Yehudah ibn Bala'am, and in a responsa preserved in a Genizah fragment.[21] In short, King Shaul seeks out a witch to raise the spirit of Shmuel HaNavi, who in turn informs him that he will perish tomorrow in battle.

As a rationalist, Rav Shmuel does not accept that there are evil forces in the world (Ruach HaTumah) and as such, sorcery can not conjure up the dead, but rather is nothing more than slight of hand. While Rav Saadiah and Rav Haaya are in agreement with this basic premise, they see the episode as factually having occurred, declaring that HaShem created a miraculous event whereby allowing the witch to raise Shmuel HaNavi's spirit, and allow for Shaul to converse with him. Thus, while Chazal view the entire episode as factual, based upon their acceptance of evil forces as a reality, and so expounded upon the event, Rav Saadiah and Rav Hayya accept only part of the event as fact, and so accept only part of the midrashim, while rejecting those which are based upon evil forces existing.

In contrast, Rav Shmuel rejects the entire episode, and explains that the witch had concealed someone to speak on 'behalf' of the spirit, while she merely acted as if she saw a 'ghost'. When Shaul arrived, she recognized him as the King, but only pretended not to, so as to strengthen the effect of the 'spirit's' visit. She discerned from his demeanor that he was apprehensive of the upcoming battle, a battle which the nation was already aware would take place in the morning, and she knew of his guilt for executing the Kohanim of Nov, as well as his transgression in not eradicating Amalek along with his punishment for this, and had her accomplice use this knowledge to speak in the name of Shmuel.

Rav Shmuel proposes this explanation because, in his words: 'the rational mind rejects any other explanation'. In other words, a complex explanation with little textual grounding trumps the literal reading of the text, because in Rav Shmuel's belief system, evil forces, or even a miracle to raise the dead, is untenable.
It is interesting to note the 'reversal' of roles in the following issue. Regarding Balaam's ass, the commentaries[22] cite Rav Saadiah as rejecting the ass as having possessed actual speech, but rather an angel was created and tasked with speaking in the proximity of the ass so as to mislead Balaam.[23] The commentaries inform us that Rav Shmuel opposed Rav Saadiah's view and accepted the text at face value.[24]

It is our hopes that this biographic sketch, as well as this additional vignette of Rav Shmuel's Torah commentary[25] serves to promote further discussion both in Rav Shmuel's works and views, and in the cultural world of the Geonim as well.

[1] Abraham Ibn Daud, Sefer Ha-Qabbalah, ed. G.D. Cohen, Philadelphia 1967, p. 60.
[2] The above is based primarily upon the recent work in this field by D.E. Sklare, Samuel ben Hofni Gaon and His Cultural World; Texts and Studies, Leiden 1996 (herein: Sklare, RSbH); M. Gil, In the Kingdom of Yishmael During the Geonic Era (Hebrew), Tel Aviv 1997 (herein: Gil, Kingdom).
[3] Ed. B.M. Lewin, Haifa 1921, p. 119.
[4] Sklare, RSbH, p. 3.
[5] Gil, Kingdom, p. 355, 357. See idem for the possibility that Rav Shmuel's mother was of the royal Davidic lineage.
[6] The date 987 is based upon Rav Sherira's Epistle, where he states (p. 118) that: 'and there is still no Yeshiva in Mehasia (Sura)', the letter itself dated as written in 987. It should be noted that this comment is cited as proof-text to the originality of the 'French' version of the Epistle, while the 'Spanish' version contains 'corrections' to 'update' the later text. See J.N. Epstein, Prolegomena to the Amoraitic Literature (Hebrew), Yerushalayim 1962, p. 612. See further M. Ber, The Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Hebrew), Ramat Gan 2011, pp. 172-187; N.D. Rabinowich, The Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon, [Brooklyn,N.Y.] 1988. Contra D. Metzger, Iggeres Rav Sherira Gaon, [Yerushalayim 1997], pp. 7-9
[7] This date is arrived upon by combining the data in two sources; a manuscript published by A. Neubauer, Mediaeval Jewish Chronicles, Oxford 1887 (2nd ed. Jerusalem 1967), p. 189: 'Our Master Shmuel passed away in the month of Av, 324 Sel. (= 1013)', and a Genizah fragment T-S 6K2 2r: 'Our Teacher Shmuel [passed away] Monday the 25th of A[v]. While the 25th of Av, fell out on a Tuesday that year, Rav Shmuel most likely passed away Monday night, thus we read 'Monday, the 25th by night'. This proposal remains true to the manuscripts cited, contra Gil, Kingdom, p. 358 who proposes emending the Neubauer text to 'Elul 323 (1012)', as 25 Elul 2012 was indeed a Monday.
[8] It is possible that the succeeding Gaon, Rav Ezariah, was the son of Rav Yisrael. See Gil, Kingdom, p. 372 and p. 403. We note here that Rav Yisrael composed a siddur tefillah, the fragments of which are currently being edited for publication. See now Sklare, RSbH, p. 25 note 107.
[9] Sklare, RSbH, pp. 11-36.
[10] It seems that three works, 1) Shaarei Shechitah ve-Bedikah ve-Shaarei Treifot 2) Shaarei Berachot and 3) Shaarei Eidut were translations of works originally written in Arabic. At some point they were translated in to Hebrew and were thus known by Rishonim outside the Mediterranean basin. See Sklare, RSbH, pp. 24-26. Sklare, ibid, p. 25 note 107 mentions the possibility that the Shaarei Berachot is really a part of Rav Yirsrael's suddur (above, note 8). R. Brody, however, sees no reason for this. See R. Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping Medieval Jewish Culture, New Haven and London 1998, p, 261 note 48.
[11] Compare the works of his son in law Rav Hayya. While Sefer HaMekach and Mispatei Shavuot were translated and remained extant in manuscript, and were even printed, other works by Rav Hayya, such as 'Ethics of Jurisprudence (Mussar HaDayanim)' and Kitab Al-Hawaya (Compendium), were lost to the annals of time, until their partial reconstruction from Genizah Fragments. Sefer HaMekach was translated 39 years after Rav Hayya's passing, in 1078 by R. Yitzchak b. Reuven of Barcelona. See S. Assaf, 'Rav Hayya Gaon's Halachic Works (Hebrew), in: Toratan Shel Geonim (herein: TSG), vol. 5, Yerushalayim 1992, pp. 2-11. See also S. Abramson, ibid, pp. 12-99. Regarding Mishpatei Shavuot, see D. Domb (ed.), Mishpatei Shavuot, Bnei Brak 2002; S. Abramson (ed.), Mishpatei Shavuot, Yerushalayim 2012. [see the review by YB Soloveitchik, HaMaayan 53 (2013), pp. 78-85 (].
[12] TSG, vol. 4, ed. S.Z. Havlin and Y. Yudlov, Yerushalayim 1992. While the value of this compilation for any library or scholar of the period can not be exaggerated, not every article published prior to 1992 was included. We hope that the scholarly editors will prevail upon the publishing house to resume their worthy undertaking and publish supplementary volumes of those articles which were not published, as well as new material published after 1992.
[13] The list here is intended to update the list published by Sklare, ibid.
[14] See Sklare, RSbH, p. 19 note 69.
[15] See Sklare, RSbH, p. 20 note 74.
[16] See Sklare, RSbH, p. 22 note 84.
[17] See Sklare, RSbH, p. 16-19.
[18] Above, note 2.
[19] Published lately by Y.M. Dubovick, "Rav Hayya Gaon's Response Regarding Four Who Entered 'The Orchard'", Yeshurun 25 (2011), pp. 15-23.
[20] This, contra to A. Greenbaum, The Biblical Commentary of Rav Samuel Ben Hofni Gaon (Hebrew), Yerushalayim 1978, p. 316 note 34, who understood Rav Hayya's comment to refer to Rav Shmuel's use of the Peshitta.
[21] Genizah Studies in Memory of Dr. Solomon Schechter, vol. 1, New York 1928, pp. 298-309. See also Gil, Kingdom, pp. 360-361.
[22] See the sources cited by HaRav Y. Kafih, Rabbeinu Saadiah Gaon's Torah Commentary (Hebrew), Yerushalayim 1963, p. 126 note 8. I might note that in his translation, Rav Saadiah does not say the ass spoke, rather 'HaShem opened her mouth and she spoke'. However, this might merely reflect the standards of translation, and not an implied intent that the ass did not actually speak.
[23] It would seem that this would also be Rav Saadiah's explanation of the Mishnah in Avot 5:6, as opposed to him rejecting the Mishnah's authenticity.
[24] Rav Hayya as well authored a responsa dealing with this and cites the words of the pasuk as proof-text of the factuality of the episode. See S. Assaf, Gaonica, Rabbinic Texts and Documents, Yerushalayim 1933, pp. 152-159.
[25] This note is not mentioned in Greenbaum's edition. The above sources are mentioned in part by R Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping Medieval Jewish Culture, New Haven and London 1998, p. 297. Brody does not mention Rav Shmuel's opinion regarding Balaam's ass, rather the similarity of opinion between Rav Saadiah regarding the ass and Rav Shmuel regarding the witch.

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