Monday 27 June 2016


Rabbi Yichya Kapach  (1850-1931)

While the common perception is that Sefardim and Yemenites are more inclined towards the mystical traditions of Judaism than their Ashkenazi coreligionists, this is not necessarily the case.   
Yemenites, firstly, are a distinct group from the Sefardim and Ashkenazim. 
Secondly, there has always existed a very rational segment of the Yemenite community which opposed mysticism. 
They were generally known as Talmidei HaRambam (the ‘students of Maimonides’) or more recently, as the Dor Deah (the ‘Generation of Reason’), or simply as Yemenite rationalists.


These rationalists were originally a major sector within the ancient Yemenite community. They based their teachings directly on what they considered to be the most accurate representation of Judaism. For them this was Talmudic Judaism (10-500 C.E.) as transmitted by the Geonim (650-1038) and early Rishonim (1038-1500) – particularly the teachings of Rambam (1135-1204).

While the rest of the Jewish world certainly acknowledges and studies Rambam, he is not regarded as the final authority on halachik matters. As a general rule, most adhere instead to the codification of the law as per the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), who lived some three hundred years later.[1]

For the Dor Daim, however, what happened in the halachik world after Rambam is of little consequence to them. They maintain that there was too much interference and influence particularly from the Jewish mystics in the post Rambam era, which introduced what they considered to be superstitious practices into Judaism - and shaped a modern system that little resembles the Judaism of Rambam. Even Rabbi Yosef Karo, in their view, was influenced by some mystical practices which he introduced into his Shulchan Aruch and which are not found in earlier Talmudic sources.

One of the reasons why they follow Rambam so closely was because he had collected the most accurate Talmudic texts and manuscripts at the time, and he based his writings on those. Therefore the best way to get a window into authentic Talmud was through the portal of Rambam, especially his Mishneh Torah, which was a most comprehensive anthology of all Talmudic literature.

The fact that some Yemenites were traditional rationalists was already recorded in the writings of Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270) who was born just forty nine years after Rambam.
However around the 1600’s the spread of Kabbalah took on a new impetus and it reached Yemen where many Yemenites were tremendously influenced by its mysticism.[2]

Rambam Tzitzit with 13 knots
The Yemenite community then split into two groups: The Baladi (‘from the country’) or traditional rationalists – and the Shami (‘from the north’, i.e. Palestine), who adopted a more sefardic approach and accepted Rabbi Karo and his Shulchan Aruch over Rambam and his Mishneh Torah.

The Rambam-faithful Baladi Jews, however, remained true to the vision of their master. They are also known technically as mekori’im, (‘originalists’) or ‘Rambamists[3]
They prayed from a shorter version of the (Rambam’s) siddur (because he didn’t want to ‘burden the community’).[4] They Yemenites tie their tzitzit differently, with 7 or 13 chulyot or knots and an ‘open space’ between each knot, according to the custom of Rambam.  They also wear a tallit on Friday nights.


About a century ago many of the traditional Baladi or Maimonidean rationalists became known as Dor Daim. They felt their community was becoming so superstitious and fatalistic to the extent that they even questioned the legitimacy of their Judaism. They believed an over emphasis of mysticism was contributing to an overall decline in the social and economic status of their society.

In order to intellectually and economically uplift his community Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) started a new religious schooling system which included some secular studies. (In this sense he may be regarded as the Shimshon Rephael Hirsch of the east.) Rabbi Kapach made it his life work to acquire and collect as many of Rambam’s original manuscripts, and even fragments of manuscripts, as possible.

Rabbi Kapach went so far as to teach that the Zohar was a forgery which even contained aspects of idolatry! Rabbi Kapach referred to those steeped in mystical traditions as ‘ikshim’ or ‘people who withhold knowledge from their contemporaries’. He systematically set out his views in a book called Milchamot HaShem which criticizes the very foundations of contemporary mysticism.

These Yemenite rationalists were specifically opposed to the kabbalistic concept of zeir anpin[5], which if taken in a literal sense, assumes certain G-dly powers and could be conceived as an entity somewhat separate from G-d.[6]

Many of their objections were based on their interpretation of Rambam’s prohibition of ‘ribbuy reshuyot’ or multiplicity of spiritual reigning powers.

They quoted Rambam: “There is one simple Essence in which there is no complexity or multiplicity of notions, but one notion only...”[7]

Neither did they entertain the kabbalistic concept of reincarnation, and cited Rav Saadiya Gaon (892-942) who regarded this idea as foreign to Judaism.

The Dor Daim also rejected the practice of asking tzadikim or even angels to intercede with G-d on behalf of another. In a similar vein they disagreed with the popular concept of visiting gravesites of holy people, as they claimed this resembled idolatry. They say that for this reason we were never told where Moshe is buried.

Interestingly enough, they do not reject the more ancient form of secret mysticism known as Ma’aseh Bereshit as practiced in Talmudic times - but firmly held that in no ways did it remotely resemble the modern interpretations of popular kabbalah of contemporary times.


Many take great umbrage to the Dor Daim’s open distrust of mysticism which has to a large extent become normative the modern Torah world. And, as to be expected, many disagree with the idea of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah superseding Rabbi Karo’ s Shulchan Aruch.

Some halachik authorities - while themselves in disagreement - do nevertheless tolerate their pro-Rambam and anti-Zohar position. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, for example, disagreed with Rabbi Kapach but did not consider his works to be heretical.

Others, like Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, have gone so far as to declare some of the writings of Rabbi Kapach as heretical.[8]

Today, many Dor Daim are secretive about their rational Maimonidean leanings for fear of ostracism by the wider community[9]

This - because of or despite - the fact that they probably represent the most accurate depiction of Rambam’s halachik and theological worldview, in living reality today.

Yemen History and Culture, by P. Ram
Tema, Journal of Judeo-Yemenite Studies

[1] Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) is regarded as an early Acharon (1500-present day), although he was born towards the end of the period of the Rishonim (1038-1500).
[2] A similar phenomenon also occurred with some eastern Sefardim who followed the Ben Ish Chai, who allowed the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria to sometimes override Rabbi Yosef Karo’ s Shulchan Aruch. Sefardi Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef tried to ‘wean’ some Sefardim off the Ben Ish Chai for this very reason.
[3] Not to be confused with modern-day groups who go by this name.
[4] This followed the version as presented in Rambam’s Sefer Ahavah.
[5] Also known as ‘the lesser countenance’.
[6] See Sefer HaBrit 29:15 and Yosher Levav p. 4
[7] Moreh Nevuchim 1:51
[8] Nezer Chaim p. 176
Rabbi Dessler and Rabbi Gedalia Nader (1923-2004, a leading student of Chazon Ish) do not consider questioning the authorship of the Zohar to be heretical. Even the Nodah BiYehudah maintains that the break from Rashbi (who is considered to have authored the Zohar), to the time when the Zohar was popularised, is too long for its authenticity to be undeniably accurate (Derushei HaTzlach).
[9] Rabbi Yosef Kapach (1917-2000), grandson of Rabbi Yichya Kapach, and a highly respected world authority on Rambam, may have been pressured to remove himself from his grandfather’s anti-Zohar stance before he could take up a position of leadership. Although he did say that it was better to draw spiritual sustenance from the writings of Rambam himself.
The Rambam's Mishneh Torah according to Ktav Yad Teiman, with commentary by Rabbi Yosef Kapach.

Monday 20 June 2016



In the previous post we looked at the possibility (as recorded by some classical Geonin and contemporary scholars), that the Talmud may have been finally completed in written form a lot later than commonly believed. 

On this view, although written texts were extant, the Talmud may have continued to be transmitted primarily in an oral format until towards the end of the Geonic period, sometime before 1038.

[Note: As pointed out in the previous post, not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. Most take the common view that the Talmud was completed as a written document by around 500 C.E.]

In this article we will expand on this issue, by analyzing two of the earliest post-Talmudic writings (from the Geonic period), and see what bearing they have on our thesis.


In the middle of the Geonic period, around the 8th-century Rav Achai Gaon penned the She'iltot in (what is said to be) the first rabbinic work of the post-Talmudic period. This pioneering work paved the way for what is today an unimaginably voluminous labyrinth of rabbinical writings.

Although referred to by the title ‘Gaon’, he never became an official head of either the Sura or Pumpedita academies. He was, however, groomed for the position but was upstaged by his assistant Natronai ben Nechemia with some assistance from the Nasi, Shlomo bar Chasdai.

Hurt by this apparent corruption, Rav Achai left Babylonia for Palestine, where he wrote his She'iltot.
The She'iltot is an unusual work because, in its original form, it contains very little reference to earlier Talmudic decisions. It is for that reason that it appears to have been written for the layman and not for the scholar. The book follows the order of the weekly portions of the Torah, and deals with general and broad themes such as love, kindness, respect for parents and the importance of truth. It also contains frequent repetitions of the same phrases.

Some contend, therefore, that this work may have been directed towards the youth. Others say the reason it lacked Talmudic scholarship was because it was written for the Jews of Palestine who were not known for their scholars at that time.

The Meiri (1249-1310) wrote:

“We received a clear tradition regarding R. Achai of blessed memory: He had a son who was not at all inclined to be diligent [in his studies]. And [so] he [R. Achai] compiled for him Sefer ha-Sheiltot so that, each and every Sabbath, when the Torah portion would be read, known halakhot from the Talmud [connected with the weekly reading] would be explained...”[1]

When the book was eventually printed (Venice 1546), it included material that had accumulated over time and took on a more scholarly and Talmudic appearance compared to the older and original manuscripts.[2]


Around the 9th-century, a little after the Sheiltot, Rav Shimon Kayara (or Kiara) wrote the Halachot Gedolot, in Sura, Babylonia[3]. He is also known as the ‘Bahag’- which stands for Baal (author of) Halachot Gedolot. He too, although of the Geonic period, never assumed the title ‘Gaon’.

Halachot Gedolot was to a large extent based on the She'iltot, with over 150 references to it throughout the book. However, it does have a more scholarly style and is probably one of the first attempts at codification of Talmudic decisions.

But it was only a hundred years after it was first written, that the Spanish edition, known as Mahadurat Aspamia (from around the year 900), incorporated many texts from the Talmud itself.

This may have some bearing on our discussion as that is (according to Meiri’s hypothesis) around the time that the Talmud in its entirety may have been put into writing.

(Although called the Spanish edition, it may have originated in North Africa in Kairouan (now Tunisia), as it contains references to ‘benei Africa’.)

Just like the She'iltot, with the passage of time many additional halachic rulings of the later Geonim had been added to the work, so that when Halachot Gedolot was first printed (Venice 1548), it no longer resembled its less technical and original text.

Accordingly, after looking at both the original versions of the earliest rabbinic writings of the Geonic period, the She'iltot and Halachot Gedolot, it could be feasible that Talmudic texts were not quoted as frequently as one would have expected because they were taught primarily as an oral tradition until the end of that era. This would support Meiri’s view.

(However, see previous post and here where we mentioned that Otzar HaGaonim - a collection of other Geonic writing only recently discovered in the Cairo Geniza - did contain reference to Talmudic texts! The compiler of this work, ironically, was upset that his scholarly anthology never gained acceptance by the ‘yeshiva world’.)


Rambam, an early Rishon, wrote that he was disappointed that the Geonim (whose era preceded his), had written so sparingly and sparsely. 

The Peninei Halacha underscores this point and writes; “Throughout the generations, the number of books (manuscripts) increased exponentially. Already in the era of Rishonim (in which Rambam lived, and which followed the era of Geonim) they began to write numerous commentaries to the Talmud.”[4]

The big question is why did it take in excess of 500 years to begin, in earnest, to write commentaries to the Talmud?

The Rishonim, however, did indeed make up for the Geonim’s sparseness of writing.
The Meiri picks up on Rambam’s criticism of the meagre writings from the Geonic period, but believed it was a mistake to condemn the Geonim. This was, he contends, because the Geonim were in fact so much more astute than the later generations of Rishonim, as they had committed the Talmudic teachings to memory. They transmitted the Talmud throughout their 500 year period primarily through an oral format.

What Rambam considered a flaw - was instead an attribute in the view of Meiri!

Meiri wrote that because of the Geonim’s reliance predominantly on oral tradition:

“...this is what caused them to write only a little...And even this (minimalistic writing) was not (even) for their own need, but [only] for their children or relatives who lacked the competence of the other students. And they wrote short [hiburim] (compositions) to be a mouth (means of instruction) for them...”

Then the Meiri continues:

“We have similarly received [a tradition] regarding our Master, Sa’adya (Gaon), of blessed memory regarding Sefer ha-Piqqadon - that he compiled it for one who was appointed a judge in his town...And the judge was sometimes perplexed. And pleaded with him [Sa’adya] to explain to him the laws...”[5]

It is clear that, at least according to Meiri, the Geonim hardly wrote anything (except, as our examples brought above seem to show, for the young and the relatively unlearned). This was because they were still transmitting their teachings orally.

Rav Sherira Gaon makes this point in his Iggeret, where he wrote of the Geonic era:
The Talmud and the Mishna were not written, but they were arranged. And the sages were careful to recite them by heart, but not from written versions.”[6]


- Considering the reasons why Rav Achai Gaon (She'iltot) and Rav Shimon Kayara (Halachot Gedolot) wrote their original sparse and rather non-technical compositions. And why Rav Sa’adia Gaon (Sefer ha-Piqqadon) wrote an unusual legal aid.

- Considering why there was not a major commentary on the Talmud during the Geonic period until Rashi at the beginning of the period of the Rishonim.
- And considering the forthright views of Meiri, Rav Sherira Gaon and others, that the Talmud was not written down until towards the end of the period of the Geonim... 

- Taken all together, could this not strongly indicate that the final committing of the Talmud to writing may have been closer to the year 1000 than the year 500?

[1] Translation from Professor Fishman, Becoming the People of the Talmud, p. 166
[2] Some of these manuscripts are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and also in the Bibliothéque Nationale , Paris.
[3] Some put the date at 825.
[4] Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, p.7
[5] Translation from Professor Fishman, ibid.
[6] See Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon.

Tuesday 14 June 2016



The question as to when the Talmud was written down might seem like an elementary question that any schoolchild can answer – the Mishna was written down by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi around the year 200 C.E., and about 300 years later around the year 500 C.E. the Talmud was redacted by Rav Ashi (352-427) and his student Ravina (d. 499).

The common perception, therefore, is that by 200 C.E. we had a collection of books called the Mishna and by 500 C.E. we had an even larger collection of writings called the Gemorra. Both works together formed what is known as the Talmud.

But as we shall see, the story of when the Talmud was written down may not be as simple as all that and research into it makes for fascinating discoveries.

The earliest full manuscript of the Talmud is known as the Munich Talmud, and it dates from 1342.
What happened between the years 200 and 1342 is a hotly debated issue.


Before we can begin we need to define five distinct eras of rabbinic leadership, throughout which this discussion takes place:

The Tannaic period lasted for about 210 years. The Tannaim were the rabbis whose views are recorded in the Mishna from approximately 10-220 C.E.
The Amoraim were the rabbis who expounded upon the Mishna and this period of the Gemorra lasted for about 280 years, from 220-500 C.E.  This was when the Talmudic period (10-500 C.E.) came to an end.
The Savoraim were the rabbis who edited and structured the Talmud for a period of about 150 years, from 500-650 C.E.
The Geonim were active for almost 400 years, from about 650-1038. They began to formulate and decide the law as it was derived from the (theoretical) Talmud.
The Rishonim were dominant for the next five hundred years from 1038-1500. They began the process of codification of the law.



As mentioned at the outset, the traditional view is that by the year 500 C.E. we had essentially written down the Talmud in its entirety (although all would agree that the Savoraim did edit and add a little content to the Talmud.)[1]

MAHARAL OF PRAGUE (1520-1609):

One very definitive source supporting this traditional view is the Maharal who clearly states that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi wrote down the Mishna around 200 C.E.  

The reason he gives is that Christianity had essentially been established by that time, and therefore if the Jews then had a written halachic text, there would no longer be a fear that that it would be adopted by Christianity (as they did with the written Torah). 

The oral (now written) Torah would therefore be a unique possession of the Jews and would subsequently define them as a people.
For this reason the oral Torah had to remain in oral form until that time, so that no other nation could claim it as their own.

This view intrinsically insists on a written text of Mishna that was completed around 200 C.E. [2]


Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan introduces another component as a possible variant to the discussion:

“There is a question as to when the Mishna was put in writing. Some authorities maintain that Rabbi Yehudah himself published it. According to others, however, it was preserved orally until several generations later.”[3]


According to Professor Fishman, the Talmud was only circulated in written copies towards the end of the Geonic period.[4] This makes it a few hundred years later than the traditional view. The basis for this argument is the Meiri who said that the Geonim continued to transmit the Talmud orally, and had developed ‘prodigious memories’ for this purpose.

MEIRI (1249-1310):

The Meiri wrote: 

And they (the Geonim) knew the entire Talmud by heart, or close to it...And therefore they didn’t find it necessary to go on at length in their compositions, for the explanation was all arranged in their mouths [in memory].”[5]

The Meiri is of the view that the writing of the Talmud takes place after the period of the Geonim and just before the period of the Rishonim (around the year 1000).[6]

Fishman writes: “Towards the end of the geonic period, the heads of the Baghdad academies acknowledged that it was impossible to abide by the tannaitic dicta (of not writing down the oral tradition) in their own times...presumably because of the growing prominence of inscribed texts of oral matters.”[7]

RAV HAI GAON (939-1038):

This position is also supported by a quote from one of the last Geonim Rav Hai Gaon: The stricture against writing halakhot no longer applies because hearts have become diminished and we need the written version. Therefore it is good to write halakhot.”[8]

RAV SHERIRA GAON (906-1006):

In 987 Rav Sherira Gaon wrote a letter to the Jews of Kairouan, now Tunisia, of which two versions – the Tsorfati (French) and Sefardi (Spanish) - exist today. In the French version of the letter, which is considered to be the most accurate, he writes that: 

“And that which you (Jews of Kairouan) wrote (asked); ‘How was the Mishna written, and how (was the) Talmud (written)?’- The Talmud and Mishna were not written, but they were arranged. And the sages were careful to recite them by heart, but not from written versions.” [9]

According to this, the Talmud may have been ‘arranged’ earlier on, but it remained an oral tradition right up to the end of the period of the Geonim around 1038.

Furthermore Fishman develops the idea that soon afterwards, Rashi (1040-1105) began to consolidate and unify the ‘relatively recently’ written down Talmud by preparing an overall commentary on it which would bind it all together

And continuing along the same lines, Rashi’s grandsons known as the Tosafists, began reconciling apparent contradictions between the various sections of the Talmud – something which would not have been required while it was in its previous oral form.

Hence the view that the Talmud was only written down in full, sometime towards the close of the Geonic period (1038).


In what Rabbi Jeremy Rosen calls ‘one of the most scathing reviews of another academic work I have ever come across’, Rabbi Haym Soloveitchick attacks Fishman’s thesis in support of the traditional view.[10]

He refers to a collection of Geonic texts known as Otzar HaGaonim which deals in part with replies to queries sent to the Geonim regarding difficult passages in the Talmud. Soloveitchick asks; 

How can one ask for an explanation of a passage in the Talmud unless one has a copy of that passage in front of oneself...As these responsa begin around the ninth century, it is clear that written copies of the Talmud are by then in circulation...(And) the citations of the Talmud found in the Otzar ha-Geonim don’t differ that much from the printed page of the standard Vilna Talmud (in common usage today).”?

In reference to Fishman’s thesis on Rashi’s ‘relatively recently’ printed Talmudic text, Soloveitchick says; Clearly the Ashkenazi community from its very inception (ca. 950, a century or so before Rashi’s birth) employed a written text of the Talmud.” 
This is because Rashi’s teachers “profusely cite from the written text of the Talmud...”


An interesting point emerges from Rabbi Haym Soloveitchick’s critique of Professor Fishman in defence of the traditional view – and that is (in my reading of his text), that no proof is actually furnished supporting the traditional view that Rav Ashi and Ravina wrote down the entire text of the Talmud around the year 500!

He writes; “...the ‘sealing’ or ‘closing of the Talmud’ did not entail any inscription of the Talmud.”
This is an astonishing statement for someone defending the traditional view to make. This means that by his own admission the Talmud was not written down in the year 500!

He continues; “That vast, organized and articulate corpus was committed to phenomenal memories of a select few ‘reciters’ (garsinim) who were in the employ of the two great yeshivot in Babylonia. The actual inscription of the Talmud took place at a later date. As to whether that date was 450, 650 or 750, Rashi said nothing. He didn’t know nor does anyone to this day.”

Again, amazingly, Rabbi Soloveitchick is telling us that the Talmud was definitely not written down in 500 but sometime over the next few hundred years – which could be somewhere during the Savoraic or even the Geonic era!

And, accordingly, nobody knows to this day, exactly when the Talmud was written down, except that it was somewhere between around 450 and 750!

Even more astoundingly, he continues, in a way, to extend his cut off date of 750 by some extra centuries;

“Put differently (and again at the risk of oversimplification) the state of the talmudic text in the period under discussion (ca, 750-1038) resembled that of a work ready to go to print, as it were, needing only a final copy editing. That copy editing was done by a number of different people, each in his own way or each with his own tradition. But when, where and by whom it was done is unknown to this day, except that it has become progressively clear that this took place in ‘the East’...

What this means is that the text of the Talmud was basically ‘fixed’ by all accounts well before the beginning of the Geonic era ca. 750, though it lacked final copy editing. 

This ‘lexically fluid’ text existed in two forms: in manuscript which circulated throughout the Diaspora and, astonishingly enough, in the memory of a few individuals with total recall (garsinim-reciters) who were employed by the two famed geonic yeshivot of Sura and Pumpeditha, which for some still obscure reason, resisted inscribing the now relatively fixed text, but had it rather committed to memory...[11]

To me it seems that Soloveitchick is only challenging Fishman by possibly a century or two, but even he maintains that the inscription takes place perhaps closer to 1000 than to 500!



Moving away from the Soloveitchick-Fishman issue, I want to share another independent view from Dr. Shai Secuda. According to his research:

“...the Mishna was ‘published’ orally (this would have been around 200) and subsequently transmitted in oral form for many centuries.”

“...there is not a single Talmudic reference to amoraim opening up a physical volume of Mishna for consultation...Similarly, the Bavli itself seems to have remained in oral form well into the Geonic period.”[12]


This is what Rabbi Triebitz, Rosh Kollel at Machon Shlomo, writes in his book ‘The Emergence of the Written Text of the Talmud’:

(During the period of the Geonim)...there was no written text of the entire Talmud. The main difference between the works of the geonim and the works of the rishonim (medieval commentators), therefore is that the latter were able to write commentaries on the Talmud because they had it as a written text, whereas the former were unable to.”

 “The Tosafists, for example, in effect edited the Talmud through their dialectical synthesis of disparate and seemingly contradictory statements and entire sections. Such an achievement is impossible if the written text is incomplete.” So the Tosafists who came just after Rashi, were reconciling the ‘relatively recently’ written document of the Talmud.

Regarding Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon he writes: “This implies that even as late as the tenth century there was still no written text of the Talmud in existence.”

 “It is also clear from Rav Sherira that the Mishna was written down at the same time as the Talmud, and neither existed in written form until the end of the geonic period.”

The final date for the writing of the Talmud (and the change from an oral to a written culture) is approximately 960, just before Rabbeinu Chananel, and the Rif”.[13]


Rabbi Hutner writes that in spite of the fact that the oral Torah was eventually written down, “the oral character of the oral Torah was preserved to a significant degree” – so that even in its written form it would still require the guidance of a teacher. And furthermore, many portions were left unwritten in any case.[14]

This is an interesting view because neither the writing nor the lack of writing is absolute.


We have explored many and variant views as to when the Talmud was finally inscripted in the format we know and use today. The range of opinion, as to when exactly that took place, is spread over many centuries.

This is but one example of how an idea most people take as a given, can open up into great mysteries when we delve beneath the surface.

[1] We are referring to the Babylonian Talmud in this discussion. The Jerusalem Talmud predates its Babylonian counterpart by about 200 years, and was complied around the year 300 C.E. It was not written in Jerusalem as its name indicates, but rather in Galilee.
[3] Handbook of Jewish Thought, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan p.188
[4] According to Moulie Vidas; “By the ninth century, the Talmud began circulating in written copies.” See Tradition and Formulation of the Talmud, p. 208
[5] See Becoming the People of the Talmud, by Talya Fishman p. 165
[6] See Introduction to Pirkei Avot by Meiri.
[7] Ibid. P. 34
[8] Ibid.
[9] This letter is known as ‘Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon’ and deals with the history of the compilation of the Talmud. The French version is in Aramaic, while the Spanish version is in Hebrew. The two versions differ on whether or not Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi recorded the Mishna in writing.
(Nosson Dovid Rabinowich argues that even the French version is consistent with the Mishna having been written down!)

[10] According to Professor Zachary Braiterman;
“Many have speculated that the invective is fuelled by a long feud between Soloveitchick and Fishman’s mentor at Harvard, the late, legendary Isadore Twersky...
I know for a fact that the editor in chief of the Jewish Review of Books took a lot of heat for publishing a review which was actually rejected by numerous scholarly journals...
While proof has been tendered by Soloveitchick that Fishman may have made this or that mistake, no proof has been offered to prove that her thesis is not true in some basic ways.
It seems to me that Soloveitchick sought to score some points in order to knock down Fishman’s thesis without himself providing any evidence for the standard, traditional view...”
(See full Soloveitchick text here, and Fishman’s response here.)

[11] Rabbi Soloveitchick does add that; “However, what was being recited orally in these two centers was an almost fixed text that differed little from those that were found throughout the Diaspora in manuscript”.
[12] See: Why the Talmud is the Only Rabbinic Work from Babylonia, by Dr Shai Secunda.
[13] History and Development of the Talmud (shiur 20),  Rabbi Triebitz.
[14] Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah, ch. 1, p. 27

Monday 6 June 2016



Ask someone how to correctly pronounce the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and you may get a variety of answers.
Let’s take a look at some of our early sources and see how they dealt with the issue.


According to the gemorra in Yoma, dealing with the placement of the letter on the urim vetumim (breastplate of the Cohen Gadol) the eighteenth letter is spelt and pronounced Tzadi.[1]
Another similar gemorra in Shabbat, actually spells out the eighteenth letter as tzadi: tzadi daled apostrophe yud.[2] To reinforce this, the gemorra also refers to the plural of tzadi as tzadin (and not tzadikim).

In the Talmud Yerushalmi as well, it is called tzadi and is grouped with other letters which change their form when they occur at the end of a word.


The great grammarian Yona Ibn Yanach (990-1050), who passed away when Rashi was ten years old, refers to tzadi in his Sefer HaShorashim.

Ibn Yanach is little known, but he was a physician who authored a medical text, wrote a Book of Refutation which is no longer fully extant, and his work on the Hebrew language is said to be of fundamental importance. He is also considered to have been one of the pioneers of what has today become the standard of modern biblical interpretation.[3] 

His early work, al Mustala, was both a critique and elaboration of the writings of Yehuda ben David Hayyuj, the Morrocan Hebrew linguist who founded the systematic school of Hebrew grammar.

(Hayyuj had thoroughly mastered Arabic and that allowed him to apply some rules of Arabic grammar to Hebrew. He developed and perfected the well known concept of Hebrew words having three letter ‘roots’ or shorashim).


All the sources we have brought clearly show that the correct pronunciation is tzadi. So where is the source for using the pronunciation tzadik?


It seems as if the earliest reference to tzadik can be found in the Sifrei (a Midrashic work on Bamidbar and Devarim). The Sifei points out that the scribe, when copying a text, has to be careful not to confuse the letter gimmel with tzadik: “If a scribe writes a gimmel as a tzadik or visa versa ...the scroll needs to be hidden away.”[4]

The Sifrei was written around the fifth century which makes this a very early source supporting the (contrary) pronunciation of ‘tzadik’.

However, it is at this point that a very interesting development takes place:  The word tzadik only occurs in the printed edition of Sifrei from Venice in 1545. The earlier manuscripts all use the word tzadi, which makes it highly likely that ‘tzadik’ may have been a printing mistake!

If this is the case, we have solved the mystery of the sudden transformation from tzadi to tzadik!


There is, however, one more curiosity that needs to be dealt with.

The Zohar, in its introduction, refers to the Tzadi as follows: “(G-d is quoted as saying to the tzadi;) O tzadi, you are both tzadi and tzadik...”[5]
This could be taken to mean that both pronunciations can be used interchangeably. If this is the case we have a very early reference to both pronunciations.

There is, however, some debate as to who wrote the Zohar, and when it was written. The traditional view, of course, is that it was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the second century. If this is the case then we have a very early support for both pronunciations.

However, there is another view that it may have been written by Moshe de León in the 1200’s, and if that is the case, then our earlier sources unanimously seem to point to the pronunciation of tzadi, and tzadik may have been a later adaption.


Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivitofsky writes that there could be a number of other reasons why tzadi transformed into tzadik:[6]

When reciting the Hebrew alphabet, the letter kuf follows directly after tzadi. This means that while saying ‘tzadi...kuf’ the tzadi could be corrupted to sound like tzadik.

Another possibility is the common acrostic ‘zatzal’ (May the memory of a righteous person be for a blessing) - referring to one who has passed on. ‘Zatzal’ comprises three letters zayin, tzadi and lamed. The tzadi, however, while it does stand for tzadik (righteous person), may - in common usage - have been mistakenly pronounced tzadik.

Also, in sister-languages to Hebrew, there is no ‘k’ sound to the letter corresponding to the Hebrew tzadi.[7]


Rabbi Zivitofsky further points out that in more modern times the usage of the term tzadik has become more common, and the terms are used interchangeably. In Mishna Berurah (written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Chafetz Chaim 1838-1933) for example, which was first published in 1906, the letter tzadi/k is referred to thirty times - three times as tzadik and twenty seven times as tzadi.


The late Lubavitcher Rebbe was in favour of referring to the letter as tzadik. A Chabad colleague of mine explained that the Rebbe was always in favour of using as many positive references as possible.


Rabbi Zivitofsky cites Rabbi Shlomo Korach (a Yemenite authority) who refers to the tzadi as ‘tsad’.

The Ashkenazim refer to the final form of the letters as sofit and the form as they occur in the middle of a word as rishonit. Thus we have tzadi sofit and tzadi rishonit

The Yemenites instead of using sofit and rishonit, use the Talmudic terms kefufah (bent) and peshutah (straight) respectively. Thus they have tsad kefufah and tsad peshutah.


Today one can comfortably get away with using tzadi or tzadik, although it does seem that the more technically accurate pronunciation would be tzadi.

Unless you’re a Yemenite, in which case you can rely on your very precise tradition and refer to the eighteenth letter as tsad.

[1] Yoma 73b
[2] Shabbat 104a
[3] See Nahum M. Glatzer (1964), “The Beginings of Modern Jewish studies”.
[4] Sifrei to Devarim 6:9 This is on the verse in the Shema, ‘Uchetavtam’ (And you shall write them).
[5] Zohar 2b
[6] See Tzarich Iyun: Tzadi by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivitofsky, where much of the material for this article was scourced.
[7] Arabic sad, Syriac sade and Ethiopic sadsi  ( ibid.).