Sunday 28 January 2018


R. Chizkiya da Silva, author of Pri Chadash.


The well-known commentary on the Shulchan Aruch[1], the Pri Chasdash (literallyNew Friut’) was written by Rabbi Chizkiya ben David da Silva (1659-1698).

His story is often ignored or unknown and his work is generally regarded as any other commentary. However, he was considered by some to be a very controversial figure; threatened with excommunication, flogging and even violence, and his Pri Chadash commentary was banned for some years.

Many are not aware that the version we have today is not entirely original, as parts of the Pri Chadash had to be ‘neutralized’ and ‘toned down’ before it was authorised as an official commentary on the Shulchan Aruch.


R. Chizkiya da Silva was born in Livorna, Italy in 1659 and much happened to him during his short thirty-nine years.

At the age of thirty, he travelled to Amsterdam to try to raise money for his new book, the Pri Chadash (the first edition was published in Amsterdam, in 1692). Whilst in Amsterdam, he was offered two positions of leadership – either to remain in Amsterdam and lead the large Sephardic community, or to travel to Jerusalem and head up a new yeshiva.

Printed sermon in Ladino, by R. Chizkiya da Silva, delivered in Amsterdam, 1691.

He almost took the leadership position in Amsterdam after the community agreed to two of his demands: - firstly, that he receives a negotiated salary instead of having to rely on random ‘gifts’ from the community (which used to be the norm) - and secondly, that the community do not interfere with any of his Halachik rulings.

However, even after they agreed to those two demands, he realised that the community would never be comfortable with his radical approach to Halacha and he decided not to take the position.[2]
Instead, in 1693 he accepted the offer to head a yeshiva in Jerusalem which became known as Beit Yaakov.[3]


To see how revered R. da Silva was, one simply has to read the inscription under his official portrait[4]:

Whoever seen the Pri Chadash must say the blessing (Shehecheyanu) ‘who has given us life and kept us so that we have reached this moment’[5]...(This portrait) was stored and hidden in the archives of kings...(and) in the house of...the most learned rabbi Avraham...Lehren (who collected rabbinic portraits) in the city and mother of Israel, Amsterdam, may G-d watch over her.”[6]


R. da Silva apparently regarded coffee very highly as a stimulant for study, because he wrote that “one cannot attain presence of mind without the aid of coffee.” This was still at a time when coffee did not taste as good as it does today and was in fact rather foul-tasting.[7] (See KOTZK BLOG 155, for a view that it may have been something stronger than coffee.)


When people started studying the Pri Chadash, they found it to be far from a benign commentary on the Shulchan Aruch:


The Pri Chadash contained criticism of earlier rabbis from the period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) and even the Gaonim (589-1038). This created much consternation in Halachik circles as the golden rule is that later rabbis do not contradict earlier rabbis because it upsets the hierarchy of the legal system.

To make matters worse, he stated that R. Dosa was mistaken in the Talmud for his zoological view regarding which animals can have horns. And R. Dosa’s view was accepted by the Shulchan Aruch![8]
This again raised the ire of the rabbinical establishment as Talmudic views are regarded as sacrosanct and can never be ‘mistaken’.

R. Chizkiya da Silva also tended to be very lenient in his Halachik rulings - and he took to task those who pronounced strict rulings, as he felt that unnecessary stringencies drive people away.
Here is one example:

The Pri Chadash[9] states that one need not worry about keeping Chalav Yisrael in a place where it is known that milk is only produced from kosher animals, or if non-kosher milk would be more expensive. He adds that it was indeed the custom of Amsterdam not to observe Chalav Yisrael and he mentions that he kept that custom too.

הכלל העולה דבעיר שלא נמצא שם חלב טמא או שהיא יותר ביוקר מחלב טהור מותר לקנות מהעכו"ם חלב שחלבו בלא ראיית ישראל כלל וכן מצאתי המנהג פשוט פה אמסטרדם וכן נהגתי אני
Another example of his lenient views can be seen with regard to Marit Ayin (where something can become forbidden because even though one is not transgressing any law, it may appear to others as if he is transgressing):
The Pri Chadash is of the view that after Talmudic times we can no longer institute new stringencies based on Marit Ayin. This went against opinions of many others[10] including the Shulchan Aruch[11] itself, which maintained that we can and do continue to introduce new stringencies.
The challenging views expressed in the Pri Chadash often turned out to be radical rally-cries in support of Maimonides and his code, the Mishneh Torah (written in the 1200’s). So much so that he, in fact, undermined the growing authority of R. Yosef Karo’s new code, the Shulchan Aruch (written in the 1500’s), which was enjoying universal acceptance.

Most serious of all was his brazen questioning of the authority of the Shulchan Aruch as the official codification and the final arbiter of Jewish Law.


When the Pri Chadash[12] reached Egypt there was a huge outcry against the work. The Egyptian rabbis proposed to excommunicate him. The excommunication, however, was not carried out against R. da Silva, and instead, it was only his book, the Pri Chadash, which was banned.

In Shut Ginat Vradim, by R. Avrahan haLevi (who was the rabbi of Egypt at that time) it is written that the rabbis of Egypt would “not let anyone read this book.” The rabbis demanded that all copies of the Pri Chadash be placed in Geniza.


Later, the Pri Chadash became popular and some like R. Yonatan Eybeschutz and R. Yosef Teomim (Pri Megadim) quote the Pri Chadash and follow many of his rulings.

First edition of Pri Chadash, Amsterdam 1692.


The Egyptian ban, however, was later repealed by R. Avraham haLevi - as well as by a student of R. da Silva, R. Shlomo Elgazi (who succeeded R. Avraham haLevi as the rabbi of Egypt and held that important position for forty-five years). As a result of their endorsements, the Pri Chadash became accepted by the mainstream.

In 1743 The Pri Chadash was published together with the other standard commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. However, before it was printed it had to undergo severe ‘modification’ (or censorship). The publishers removed the harsh language of the original uncomfortable challenges to the Shulchan Aruch and then re-styled the text to conform to the other standard commentaries.


The following is a fascinating ‘eyewitness’ account of the controversy surrounding the Pri Chadash, as extracted from Shut (Responsa of) Ginat Vradim[13], by R. Avraham haLevi:

It so happened that a devout scholar, inflamed by the zeal of the Torah, had written a book, entitled Pri Chadash...

The book arrived in Egypt. Upon perusal of some of its content, it was discovered that the author had cast off the bridle of his tongue to say derogatory things about Israel’s great authorities, whose words we drink thirstily and whose utterances we follow.

He does not respect the rulings of the venerable elders, and refers perfidiously to our great rabbi the Beit Yosef (R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch), whose work forms the basis of all our rulings and is the pillar of our study, as if he (R. Karo) were his inexperienced pupil, a fledgling who has not yet opened his eyes, in that he (R. Karo) has no qualms about forbidding what is permitted (i.e. R. da Silva accused R. Karo of being overly strict in his Shulchan Aruch.)[14].’

When this (book) was made public (in Cairo), a group of brave men braced themselves and convened the scholars of Israel who dwelled in the city (of Cairo), and also some sojourners who are here from other countries, to call the author (R. da Silva) to order.

The local scholars agreed on a course of conciliation between the two sides, to avoid physical violence to the learned author or besmirching his honour, heaven forbid, by a public flogging or excommunication.

They, therefore, admonished him privately, and he apologised and became aware of his deeds, of which he was ashamed, like a thief caught red-handed.

In order to appease the community, its leaders and officials, they agreed to bury all the books found here in Egypt in a building.[15]

And it was most solemnly decreed, and a ban was imposed...that the said book must not be read casually or deeply, by any member of the community...

It so happened that the rabbis of Hebron...happened to be here too, and they were asked to...add their signatures to the document, but they would not be bound by it, and upon leaving the city, they would hold on to the said book and study it...”

Some time past after the book was banned in Egypt. R. Da Silva had passed away and it seemed that the mood towards him had changed.

The Ginat Vradim continues:

Now several utterly wise scholars, and many others, are longing and eager to study the said book...Now the fervent about (keeping) G-d’s laws have come and asked whether or not it is possible to lift the said ban...

When I who am but junior, saw the city (of Cairo) in this commotion, and the desire of numerous scholars to find a solution...I decided to examine it as much as my frail ability permits...”
First, though, the Ginat Vradim defends the original ban:

“In my opinion, even if the aforementioned ban seems very strange (to the reader) – for how could they (the rabbis who issued the ban) agree that this book, which contains numerous novel interpretations of the law, may not be read, thereby denying academic sustenance to students? – in any event, we have found that greater precautions have been instituted, when this is required by the times, to serve as fences to safeguard the Torah.”

In other words, with the passage of time, the Law becomes more and more stringent so as to protect the institution of Halacha. (It’s interesting to note that this very notion was fundamentally opposed by R. da Silva, as we saw regarding his general aversion to extra stringencies.)

In this light...there is no doubt that the ban on the book was legally valid, for they were zealous for the honour of the early authorities. Therefore, one who makes light of and abandons this covenant is like one who transgresses the complete Torah that was given to Moses...”

Having defended the ban, Ginat Vradim continues:

Now let us see if we can find a remedy for the injury of that scholar (R. da Silva) who tarnished and ridiculed the honor of Israel’s great men.”

The main argument in favour of R. da Silva’s vindication is:

“...he has atoned for this sin by his death. Since his sin has been atoned for, the court may lift the ban...”

Then Ginat Vradim acknowledges that it was only really in Egypt that rabbis took umbrage to R. da Silva’s outspoken views:

“...the work (Pri Chadash)
 has been disseminated throughout all Jewish communities (outside of Egypt) and there have been no misgivings anywhere...”

But he continues to defend the Egyptian rabbis:

Nevertheless, the competent court of Egypt...has acted well...since the honor of the early authorities has been enhanced...”

Finally, Ginat Vradim seems to rely on ‘public discretion’ as sufficient basis to support the lifting of the ban on the Pri Chadash:

Furthermore...we see that readers of this kind of book are discriminating enough to take the insides and discard the rind, and the holy people of Israel harken to strictures and truly recognize the stature of the early authorities...”

And as the last word, going almost as far as to admit that R. da Silva may have been treated a little unfairly, he seems to end almost in desperation:

“...since there are numerous (other) books that deserve to be taken out of circulation, and no one pays them any heed (we might as well rescind the ban on the Pri Chadash). Therefore, since we know that his action did not bring about any mishap to the public, his sin may be forgiven.”[16]


According to the Ginat Vradim, when the Egyptian ban against the Pri Chadash was rescinded, the book was to have been re-circulated in its original form. It was the ‘discriminating’ readers who would be able to choose which parts to accept and which to reject if necessary. There is no mention of the work being censored.

However, as we know, later in 1743, when the Pri Chadash became ‘standardised’ so as to conform with the other ‘normative’ commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, the text first had to be ‘cleansed’ (apparently by the publishers).

What this amounts to, then, is that the standard published version of the Pri Chadash commentary that we use today is essentially a censored text and not entirely  the original writing of R. Chizkiya da Silva.

[1] The Shulchan Aruch was authored by R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575). The Pri Chadash commentary can be found on the sections of Orach Chaim, Yoreh Deah and Even haEzer.
[2] This is the version of the story as apparently recorded by the Chida.
[3] While in Amsterdam, R. da Silva influenced the wealthy Yaakov Pereira to fund a new yeshiva in Jerusalem under his name, hence ‘Beit Yaakov’. Interestingly, there already did exist a Beit Yaakov Yeshiva in Jerusalem, named after the Vigo brothers, which had closed in 1689. He was soon to have three prominent students, R. Shlomo Elgazi (who became the Rabbi of Rabbi of Egypt), R. Avraham Yitzchaki and R. Yitzchak haCohen (author of the Battei Kehuna).
[4] The original painting was done during the 1600’s but in the early 1800’s it was copied and the inscription was added. The new painting was part of a collection of rabbinic portraits belonging to R. Avraham Tzvi Hirsch Lehren (1784-1853). R. Lehren also ran an organization called Pekidim, which strove to ensure that there was always a strictly religious community living and studying in Israel.
[5] This was a play on the blessing oven a ‘new fruit’, or Pri Chadash.
[6] Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, by Richard I. Cohen.
[7] As an interesting aside, R. Yehudah Leib Nardin actually forbade coffee as a non-kosher beverage. This was, he said because sometimes meat fat was added to it. Although R. Nardin was adamant that he had seen meat fat added to coffee, it is possible that the word Cheilev (meat fat) was meant to read Chalav (milk) and that perhaps he intended to say that coffee should not be used after eating meat as it may contain milk.
[8] Pri Chadash, Yoreh Deah 80:20.
[9] Pri Chadash 115:6.
[10] Such as the Pri Toar (Yoreh Deah 87:9).
[11] Yoreh Deah 87:4.
[12] The section on Yoreh Deah to be precise.
[13] Yoreh Deah 3:3.
[14] All parenthesis are mine.
[15] My assumption is this may be a reference to the famous Cairo Geniza. See KOTZK BLOG 91.
[16] Excerpted from Controversy and Dialogue in the Jewish Tradition: A Reader, edited by Hanina Ben-Menahem, Neil S. Hecht, Shai Wosner.

Sunday 21 January 2018


Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo, from the frontispiece to Sefer Elim

Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo (1591-1655) also known as Giuseppe Salomone di Candia Del Medigo, was a rabbi, physician, mathematician and music theorist.

Born on the island of Crete (then called Candia), he was also known as the Yashar miKandiya.Yashar’, meaning honourable, is also an acronym for Yosef Shlomo Rofeh (doctor).

He spent much time amongst the Karaites[1] and he expressed the astounding view that most of Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary had been taken from Karaite sources. (See KOTZK BLOG 158.) While in Cairo he came across a copy of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed and was greatly influenced by the work.

He became quite a celebrity after he defeated the renowned Arab mathematician, Ali b. Rahmadan, in a public disputation in Cairo concerning spherical trigonometry.
He travelled extensively throughout North Africa and Europe and he is buried in the famous Jewish cemetery in Prague, close to the Maharal of Prague.


It is estimated that R. Delmedigo may have written up to sixty books.

One of them, a book of over 400 pages on astronomy and mathematics, was entitled Sefer Elim (Palms). In it, amongst other issues, he discusses the sizes of the celestial bodies and their distances from earth.
 Illustration from Sefer Elim
The book was written in response to ‘12 general and 70 detailed questions’ sent to Delmedigo by a Karaite scholar, Zerach ben Natan, from Lithuania. These numbers coincidentally corresponded to the 12 fountains and 70 palm trees at Elim as mentioned in the Torah[2] and hence Delmedigo chose this as the name for his book.

The title page to Sefer Elim describes his occupation as a ‘propper’ (shalem) rabbi which implies an official form of smicha or rabbinical ordination.

Sefer Elim has been described as: “The most sumptuously illustrated of early scientific works in Hebrew, and unique in printed Hebrew literature before the modern period.”[3]

The book was heavily censored over the years and only sections remain today.


His life’s mission was to introduce science to the religious Torah world of his day, particularly to the Askenazim.

Delmedigo made the observation that the Ashkenazim of his day were not interested in science because they were preoccupied solely with Talmud study to the exclusion of everything else - whereas the Sefardim and Karaites (who, at that time were more affluent and influential than the Rabbinites) were better able to merge with both worlds.

He appealed to the Ashkenazim to get more involved in science and philosophy. And he was particularly abhorred by the unsanitary conditions in the ghettos and the chaos that often ensued there because of their ignorance of worldly matters. He desperately wanted to uplift his people by a ‘renaissance’ of science and he encouraged the study of trades and professions so that they could become self-sufficient and live with dignity.

Of the Jews of Poland he writes:

They understand neither science nor Torah. They have become enemies of science, and despise those who study it...”[4]

According to S. Pulver:

Delmedigo of historical, mathematical, and educational interest since he was one of the first in the Jewish world to attempt to integrate the new secular scientific knowledge into religious aspects of Jewish life...[5]

While serving as the personal physician to Prince Radziwill of Poland, he wrote:

“...officers and deputies, young and old, arrive early at my door. They bring me from city to city, crowning me with honour and praise. (But) in truth I want nothing more than to write Hebrew books containing the entire body of science and wisdom in order to teach Jews.”[6]


Delmedigo was, additionally, a student of Galileo, studying under him whilst in Venice.
He must have made an impression upon Galileo as he was given the unusual honour of using Galileo’s personal telescope, which Galileo had constructed himself.

 Galileo's Telescope, Museum of the History of Science, Florence
He wrote:

My teacher Galileo observed mars when it lay close to the Earth. At this time its light was much brighter than that of Jupiter, even though Mars is much smaller. Indeed it appeared too bright to view through the telescope. I requested to look through the telescope, and mars appeared to me to be elongated rather than round...In contrast I found Jupiter to be round and Saturn to be egg-shaped.”

This observation in those times must have been like looking at images from the Hubble Telescope today.

Most fascinatingly, Delmedigo, in his Sefer Elim, refers to Galileo as ‘Rabbi Galileo’.[7]


There are two dissenting views as to whether R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo was a defender of Kabbalah or an opponent of it:


According to one view, Delmedigo, although a scientist, saw no contradiction between science and mysticism and he authored a work called Matzreif leChachma, in defence of Kabbalah

This, in light of the fact that his great-grandfather, R. Eliyahu Delmedigo[8] - a loyal follower of the Maimonidean doctrine of rationalism - had launched an attack against the Kabbalah. R. Eliyahu Delmedigo believed that one had to "fight for rationality, sobriety and the realization of [his] human limitations."[9]

R. Eliyahu Delmedigo had challenged the authorship of the Zohar and denied it was written by R. Shimon bar Yochai. He claimed it was not known to the rabbis of the Talmud, nor to the Gaonim, nor to Rashi. He showed how it contained names of people who had lived after the death of R. Shimon bar Yochai. (See KOTZK BLOG 87.)

It is, therefore, most interesting that there is this view that his great-grandson, the student of Galileo, became such a staunch defender of Kabbalah. - Especially considering the publisher’s note in the preface of the book stating that when R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo was eighteen years old, and a student at the University of Padua in northern Italy, he would openly mock the Kabbalah. It is alleged, however, that he had a change of heart at the age of twenty-seven.


Then there is the counter view that his defence of Kabbalah was not his genuine personal view because he wrote his Matzreif leChachma on behalf of a patron in Hamburg, who by his own admission, commissioned him to write the book. In this sense, he was a ‘ghost writer’.

Apparently, he was ‘ashamed’[10] of this book and said that it was common practice for an author to not state his personal views when writing for a patron.

Furthermore, supporting the notion that Delmedigo was an opponent of Kabbalah is the fact that he was a close friend of R. Leon of Modena who was known as a fierce anti-Kabbalist.[11]


Regarding his position with regard to Kabbalah, Delmedigo did certainly become a master of Lurianic Kabbalah whilst in Poland. Depending on the view one takes, he did this either to find mystical solutions to problems which science could not answer, or simply, to be qualified sufficiently to refute the mystical tradition.

Regarding R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo’s association with the Karaites may appear surprising although not that unusual in Jewish history. (See KOTZK BLOG 91.)                                        

In the Introduction to Sefer Elim, which was written by Delmedigo’s student, Moshe Metz, it states that although his teacher did associate with Karaites; ‘ did not disturb him to be associated with any scholar, whoever he was, as long as he was interested in reason.”[12]

Finally, R. Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo’s description of the Ashkenazim of Poland is also interesting, as is his ‘solution’ to educate them in the sciences so that they may be uplifted from what he considered to be the chaos and unsanitary conditions of the ghetto.                              

In some way it appears that he may have been quite successful because a century later, Naftali Hetz Wessely (1725-1805)[13] provides an eyewitness account as to how well-read his books were:                                                                                                                                          
We have seen among our Polish brethren... great Torah scholars who studied geometry and astronomy in their homeland by themselves, without the aid of a teacher. They knew the depths of these sciences to such an extent that the gentile scholars marvelled at their reaching such a level of knowledge without a teacher. They studied the few books that were written by scholars of our nation, such as Yesod Olam and Elim by Yosef Kandia.”[14]


This is reminiscent of the view of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), who went so far as to actively encourage his students to study secular wisdom. He instructed his disciple Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to translate Euclid’s Elements into Hebrew so that the Torah world could better understand Geometry. 

The Gaon said that if one lacks a measure of secular knowledge, one will lose out on a hundred measures of Torah knowledge. He believed that Torah and secular wisdom were intertwined.[15] He also said that a Kiddush haShem was defined by a non-Jew being impressed by the professionalism and breadth of the secular knowledge of a Torah Jew. (See KOTZK BLOG 65.)

[1] It has been suggested that he befriended the Karaites because of their love for secular literature and also possibly because he may have been persecuted by some within the mainstream Jewish community. (See Jewish Virtual Library, Delmedigo, Joseph Solomon.)
[2] Numbers 33:9.
[3]National Library of Canada Catalogue.
[4] New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, by Jeremy Brown, p. 78.

[5]THE SYNCOPATED MATHEMATICAL WORKS OF JOSEPH SOLOMON DELMEDIGO, by Sandra M. Pulver. Pi Mu Epsilon Journal. Vol. 9, No. 2 (SPRING 1990), pp. 106-109.

[6] New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, by Jeremy Brown, p. 68.

[7] It is possible that this title was just a sign of respect but it is just as possible that Delmedigo knew something more about his teacher than was generally recorded.
[8] Author of the anti-Kabbalistic work Bechinat haDa’at.
[9] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
[10] See JewishEncyclopedia, Delmedigo, Joseph Solomon.
[11] R. Modena actually used Delmedigo’s Matzreif leChachma as a basis for his own work, Ari Noham (‘Roaring Lion’) which was clearly and systematically anti-mystical.
[12] Introduction to Sefer Elim, p. 9.
[13] Wessely was a student of R. Yonatan Eybeschutz and was later regarded as one of the influential leaders of the Maskilim. He was threatened with excommunication by the German and Polish rabbinate, but the Italian rabbis came to his defence and supported him.
[14] See: Divrei Shalom veEmet, by Naftali Herz Wessely.
[15] “HaTorah vehaChochma nitzmadim yachad.”

Sunday 14 January 2018


Sefer haGoralot, a treatise on astrology, by Ibn Ezra.

Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) was born in Tudela, Spain. He travelled extensively throughout North Africa, Egypt, Italy, France and even spent some time in Oxford and London. It appears that he passed away in England (allegedly after being attacked by wolves) and it is even suggested that he may have been buried there. He was widely respected as a poet and scholar and is probably best known for his various Torah commentaries.


Ibn Ezra’s acclaim was not only within Jewish circles. He even has the moon crater Abenezra named after him. This may have been because, in addition to his Biblical commentaries, he wrote a number of treatises on mathematics and numbers, in which he expounded on the old Indian system of mathematics, which later influenced the Arabic mathematicians. He also wrote about the ‘Galgal’ (the ‘circle’) otherwise known as the numeral zero, which he brought to the attention of some in Europe.[1]

(For more on Ibn Ezra see KOTZK BLOG 94.)


Ironically, it is the Master Commentator, Rashi, who is commonly known as the great expounder of the Pshat, or literal and simple meaning of the Torah text. Yet, even a cursory examination of Rashi, reveals that his commentary is not always Pshat. Rather it is replete with Medrashic sources and rabbinical allegories – which do not always adhere to the literal meaning of the text – and which instead often reveal a hidden meaning or a moral lesson.[2]

It is evident, however, that it was the purists from the Pshat School of biblical commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who really expounded on the literal interpretation of the texts, without relying upon Medrashic allegory.


An example of this difference between Rashi and Ibn Ezra can be seen in their respective commentaries on Bereishit 14:14:

When Avraham learned that Lot had been taken captive, the Torah text says that he summoned 318 men[3] to save him.  Rashi, however, quoting the Rabbis, says it was not an army but just one man, namely, Eliezer his servant, whose name had the gematria or numerical value of 318:

Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, dismisses this ‘drash’ (allegorical interpretation) as it involves numerology. Numerology, he says, is no way to prove anything because it can be twisted and abused to create any outcome:


The Karaites were an influential, significant and large number of Jews who ignored the rabbinical interpretations of the Torah and relied solely upon the literal meaning of the text as they imagined the ancient Israelites to have done during biblical times. The movement may have had its roots going back to the second century BCE,[4] but they certainly crystallised under the leadership of Anan ben David (715-795 or 811).

They became so powerful that, at one time, with almost half of the Jewish population practising Karaism, it was thought to have been a strong contender for future Judaism. However, as we know, Rabbinical Judaism continued to remain the dominant mainstream.

(For more on the Karaites see KOTZK BLOG 63. and KOTZK BLOG 122.)

With the Karaite insistence on the pure and literal meaning of the Torah text, it is possible that Ibn Ezra, a ‘pshatist’, turned to some of their interpretations when he needed clarity on the Pshat.
In his book, Masters of the Word[5], R. Yonatan Koltach writes:

In his Torah commentary, Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators extensively...
While he cites some Karaite interpretations with agreement and respect, such as...Aharon ben Yeshua and...Yeshua ben Yehudah, his stance...was principally defiant and discrediting.”


Ibn Ezra quotes Karaite commentators several hundred times in his Bible commentary.[6]
Indeed, he cites the Jerusalemite Karaite, Yeshua (ben Yehudah) at least forty times[7], seemingly in concurrence.

Moreover, Ibn Ezra quotes the Karaite, Yefet (ben Ali HaLevi...) more than one hundred times[8], often complementing his interpretations.”

By comparison, Philip Birnbaum writes that Ibn Ezra only quotes R. Saadia Gaon five times.[9]


These ideas did not sit well with other Torah scholars and thus we find that R. Shlomo Luria (1510-1573, also known as Maharshal) wrote:

(Ibn Ezra) has lent support to heretics...and those of little faith.”[10]

R. Yosef Delmedigo (1591-1655, also known as the Yashar miKandiya) who spent much time amongst the Karaites, writes that the majority of Ibn Ezra’s commentary is taken from Karaite sources!

In a similar manner, Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes:
(Ibn Ezra was) influenced by Karaite commentators and occasionally follows their opinions.”[11]


Rambam, on the other hand, had no issues with Ibn Ezra, and he also seems to have been well acquainted with the writings of Yefet ben Ali[12].
Quite to the contrary, Rambam praised Ibn Ezra as can be seen by what he wrote in the letter to his son:

Do not pay attention or divert your mind on commentaries, treatises and books other than those of Ibn Ezra, which alone are meaningful and profitable to all who study them with intelligence, understanding and deep insight’.[13]


Ibn Ezra, as mentioned, quotes the Karaite Yefet ben Ali over one hundred times.
Yefet ben Ali haLevi was born in the early 900’s in Basra (present-day Iraq) and died in Jerusalem around 980. He was known by the Karaites as the Maskil haGolah (Intellect of the Exile).

He wrote about his dispute with Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) and tried to prove the superiority of the Karaite view. Besides attacking the Rabbinites, as the mainstream Jews were called, he severely criticised Christianity as well as Islam.

From his commentary on Isaiah it is clear that in his view there are four categories of Jews:

1)      The Reish Galuta (Exilarchs) who pretend to have knowledge.
2)      The scholars to whom the Reish Galuta teaches the ‘nonsense’ of Talmud as well as sorcery.
3)      The common folk who do not study and only know about attending synagogue from Shabbat to Shabbat and to say ‘Shema’ and answer Amen.
4)      The ‘real’ Karaite Maskilm (Scholars) who truly understand Torah and teach generously without demanding payment for their services.

In another work[14] he argued that, in his view, there is no evidence of an Oral Tradition within the Written Torah, and purported that the Mishna and Talmud infringe on the Biblical prohibition of Lo Tosifu - “Do not add to the word I have commanded you.”[15]

Yefet ben Ali also broke with the general Karaite view that the study of secular science was to be discouraged. On the contrary, he insisted that it be studied as a pre-cursor to religious theology.
Besides the two exceptions of the Biblical stories of the Burning Bush and the Song of Songs, no other parts of the Torah were to be interpreted allegorically.

Amazingly, this was the man Ibn Ezra was prepared to quote from more than a hundred times!
According to E.Z. Melamed, the Karaites went so far as to claim that Yefet ben Ali was indeed Ibn Ezra’s teacher![16]


According to Professor Marc Shapiro:

“...Ibn Ezra has no reticence in citing Karaite interpreters, yet as we know, ArtScroll only cites ‘accepted’ authorities, and won’t even mention the Soncino commentary by name...(However) there are some times when ArtScroll errs in this matter.

For example, in its commentary to Jonah, p. 111 it cites ‘Yefes ben Ali’ (who is quoted by Ibn Ezra). Presumably, the ArtScroll editor assumed that he was a rishon.

In truth, he was a Karaite, and his inclusion in the Jonah commentary is diametrically opposed to the standard set up by ArtScroll with regard to which commentaries they will cite, a standard that opposes the Ibn Ezra-Maimonides approach (adopted by Soncino) of ‘accept the truth from whomever said it’”.[17]


To be clear, Ibn Ezra was a fervent Rabbinite and opposed the non-Halachic practices of the Karaites. However, this did not prevent him from making use of Karaite interpretations when it came to the actual literal meaning of some of the words of the Torah text.

The same debate over the permissibility of using ‘extraneous’ or ’outside’ source to enhance Torah knowledge still rages today. Can one, for example, use academic writings or research done by non-religious people, to compliment one’s Torah study?

The answer to that question would fundamentally lie in the view one adopts regarding the precedent set by people like Ibn Ezra.

(For an even more extreme example of ‘Karaite precedent’ in the Mesora, see KOTZK BLOG 122.)

[1] See (Article): A History of Zero, Ancient Indian Mathematics, by J J O’Connor and E f Robertson.
[2] Yet Rashi said of himself that he only came to expound on the Pshat.
[3] Or ‘desciples’.
[4] This is the view of R. Yehudah haLevi, who was Ibn Ezra’s friend, or possibly even his father-in-law. See Sefer haKuzari, by R. Yehuda haLevi, where the roots of Karaism are traced back to the reign of King Jannai.
[5] Vol 2, p. 280 and 309.
[6] (Emphasis mine.) Although in his introduction, Ibn Ezra does state that Karaite commentaries are unreliable.
[7] See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Bereshit 28:12 and Shemot 7:12, 17:16.
[8] See Ibn Ezra’s commentary on Shemot 3:3, 12:16, 22:27.

[9] In the Minor Prophets alone, Ibn Ezra quotes Yefet ben Ali forty-four and Ran Saadia Gaon only five times. See: Yefet ben 'Ali and His Influence on Biblical Exegesis, by Philip Birnbaum, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jan.1942), pp. 257-271.

[10] See Introduction to Chullin and Introduction to Bava Kamma.
[11] See Abarbanel on Vayikra 19:20, Bamidbar 21:1.

[12] See: From Judah Hadassi to Elijah Bashyatchi, by Daniel  J. Lasker, p. 128

[13] See: Letters of Maimonides, Stitskin,  p156. It must be pointed out, though, that Rambam did not agree with all the writings of Ibn Ezra, particularly those which dealt with astrology (such as Sefer haGoralot which is pictured above).
[14] This was an epistle published by Pinsker under the title Likkutei Kadmoniyot, p. 19.
[15] Devarim 4:2.
[16] E Z Melamed (1975) pp. 676-679. (According to Marc Shapiro, this is a ‘false legend’.)
[17] See The Seforim blog:  More about Rashbam on Genesis Chapter 1 and Further Comments about ArtScroll, by Marc B. Shapiro.