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Sunday, 31 March 2019

220) WHEN A YESHIVA IS NOT A YESHIVA – A SCHOLARLY DEBATE:

Rav Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy.
TALMUDIC ACADEMIES DURING TALMUDIC TIMES: 

INTRODUCTION:

Although it is generally assumed that huge and flourishing Talmudic academies, too numerous to mention, had always flourished throughout Jewish history - the nature and popularity of the early Talmudic academies, however, is a subject of great intrigue and much debate.

In this article, we will take a brief look at one such debate between David Goodblatt and Yeshayahu Gafni, as to when and where the Talmudic academies began to rise.

I have drawn extensively from the academic writings of Jeffrey Rubenstein who has researched and written much about this matter.[1]

BACKGROUND:

To provide a brief backdrop to the discussion, we need to define three essential rabbinic periods within the Talmudic era:

The Mishnaic Period - from the beginning of the common era up to around 200 CE. (During which time the Mishna was compiled by Tannaim.)

The Amoraic Period - from 200 up to around 500 CE. (During which time the Gemara was compiled by Amoraim. Both Mishna and Gemara comprise the Talmud.)

The Savoraic Period – from 500 up to around 650 CE. (During which time the Talmud was edited by mainly anonymous Savoraim also known as Stammaim.)

THE DEBATE:

Goodblatt and Gafni were simultaneously researching the same topic and used the Babylonian Talmud, amongst other sources, as a basis for their views. However, they arrived at some very different conclusions:

DAVID GOODBLATT:

David Goodblatt - in his Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia - shows, astoundingly, that large-scale rabbinic academies did not exist during Talmudic (Amoraic) times. 

Instead, they only developed later in the post-Talmudic era. This goes very much against the common perception that enormous institutions with tens of thousands of students frequented such academies during the time of the Gemara.

BEY RAV:

Goodblatt shows how the Babylonian Talmud frequently refers to a bey rav or house of a rabbi, which implies a smaller and more intimate circle of instruction. This style of instruction was far from institutionalized because the bey rav had no identity of its own as an academy would have had. The somewhat informal bey rav did not overshadow or survive the teacher and when he died, the students went to another rabbi in a different bey rav.

BEY MEDRASHA:

In a similar vein, Goodblatt suggests that reference to a bey midrasha or beit midrash, usually refers not to a Babylonian rabbinic academy but rather to a normal school. Furthermore, this bey medrasha would have been either referring to Tannaic times or to the Palestinian Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael - but not to schools in Babylonia (Bavel).

Goodblatt arrives at some of these conclusions by simple mathematics: The term bey midrasha appears 7.5 times more frequently in regard to the Palestinian Amoraim than their Babylonian counterparts. 

And there is only one statement referring to a Palestinian sage in a bey rav - while there are 80 statements referring to a Babylonian sage in the bey rav.

YESHIVA/METIVTA:

The terms yeshiva or metivta (Aramaic for yeshiva) are used infrequently in the Babylonian Talmud. But even when they are used, they refer not to a yeshiva as we know it but rather to a ‘sitting’ of a court of law or a Sanhedrin.

According to Goodblatt, even in instances where it seems that the context of the term metivta was used as referring to an educational facility and not a court, he still maintains that the learning did not take place in an institution but in a smaller session within the bey rav.

Thus, when the Talmud[2] writes:

ואנן קא מתנינן בעוקצין תליסר מתיבתא

And we study the (tractate of) Uktzin in thirteen yeshivot,” it would refer to thirteen study sessions as opposed to thirteen different academies.

Goodblatt sums up his views and writes:

“[T]he organization of rabbinic instruction in Sasanian Babylonia was rather different from the way it has been described in medieval and modern accounts.

The large Talmudic academies (yeshivot or metivata) known from the Islamic era did not exist in amoraic times. Instead disciple circles and apprenticeships appear to have dominated academic activity.”[3]

Accordingly, Goldblatt views suggest that there were no large or even formal yeshivot during the times of the Gemara!

YESHAYAHU GAFNI:

On the other hand, Yeshayahu Gafni suggests that rabbinic academies did begin to emerge towards the end of the Amoraic or Gemara period. 

He conceded that the terms yeshiva and metivta refer to a court, but only in Tannaic and Palestinian sources. He argues, however, that in 35 instances where the Babylonian Talmud uses yeshiva and metivta they do refer to formal institutionalised rabbinic academies and not to courts!

Thus, according to Gafni, there were indeed rabbinic academies in (albeit late) Amoraic times in Babylonia - and they did not originate, as Goodblatt suggests, in post-Talmudic times.

Both Goodblatt and Gafni published rejoinders to each other’s arguments but the essential debate stood: 

Did the great Babylonian rabbinic academies start during late Amoriac times (Gafni) - or did they only emerge during the post-Talmudic period (Goodblatt)?

Interestingly, both appear to agree that formal rabbinic academies did not exist during the early or middle Amoraic period, which certainly goes against the popular perception of the Gemara period being dominated by huge academies.

SCHOLARLY FINDINGS SUBSEQUENT TO THE DEBATE:

In the years following the Goldblatt-Gafni debate of the 1970s, the scholarly consensus seems to indicate that significant sections of the Babylonian Talmud, especially those attributed anonymously, may have been the work of the Stammaim or Savoraim who edited the Talmud. This would have taken place during the one hundred and fifty years immediately following the Talmudic period.  [See here  for more on the editing of the Bavli.]

Goodblatt actually refers to this in his rejoinder, making the point that the Stammaim, may have taken their contemporary terminology and interpolated some of their terms into the Talmud they were editing.

It is, therefore possible that the Stammaim may have used the terms yeshiva and metivta, based on their observation of such relatively new academic institutions appearing during their times, and transposed them into the Talmud. This line of thinking would vindicate Goodblatt.

According to Jeffrey Rubenstein:

“If these theories are accepted, then we must reevaluate some of the evidence that figures in the debate between Gafni and Goodblatt. Many of the references to yeshiva / metivta, as well as the richest descriptions of the academy...should be attributed to the stammaim, [and][4] clearly they do not tell us anything about the amoraic period.”[5]

Continuing along this line of thinking, Rubenstein points out that in the 35 instances where Gafni claims yeshiva and metivta refer to actual rabbinic institutions of learning, these instances appear to be specifically from the sections identified as being reworked by the Stammaim.[6]

Interestingly, the addition of the Stammaim component into the debate appears to offer more support for Goodblatt, but also explains Gafni's position.

BEYOND THE TERMINOLOGY:

Rubenstein finally encourages us to look beyond the terminologies of bey rav, yeshiva and metivta, because the fact remains that there are a number of references in the Babylonian Talmud to rabbinic gatherings where it does seem that large academies existed during that period.

One such account[7] described R. Yochanan and his students and seven rows of rabbis seated in order of prominence. The gathering was so large that R. Yochanan had to sit on seven cushions so that he could be seen by all the students. From this description, it certainly does appear that this was no small study group in a bey rav.[8]

Rubenstein concludes that in light of references to gatherings such as these as well as contemporary scholarship – rabbinic academies rose in Babylonia (possibly towards the end of the Amoraic period, but certainly) during the Stammaic post-Talmudic period, between around 450 and 600 CE.

“This explains Goodblatt’s observations that the Bavli usually describes Babylonian amoraim assembled in small disciple circles. It [also][9] explains Gafni’s observation that the Bavli nevertheless does refer to yeshiva / metivta in some passages: these passages are of stammaitic provenance.”

According to Rubenstein, both Gafni and Goodblatt were therefore correct although he leans more towards Goodblatt because:

“Gafni was correct to claim that there are indeed references to academies in the Bavli. However, these references belong to the post-amoraic stratum, and therefore support Goodblatt’s, rather than Gafni’s, conclusion.”

THE COMMON PERCEPTION:

This debate is interesting because besides the various arguments each participant brings to the table, it appears to fly in the face of the popular perception that there were always huge academies even going back, as tradition tells us, to the beginning of time with the yeshiva of Adam’s son, Shem (and Ever). And certainly, these academies are presumed to have continued to flourish during the golden age of Talmud study in Babylonia.

RAV AND SHMUEL:

This popular perception  is even reflected in the Wikipedia entry on the matter:

“Rav, was one of the most important pupils of [Rabbi] Judah [haNasi, the compiler of the Mishna. Hence Rav was one of the first Amoraim].

Rav's return [from Eretz Yisrael] to his Babylonian home, the year of which has been accurately recorded (... 219 CE), marks an epoch; for from it dates the beginning of a new movement in Babylonian Judaism—namely, the initiation of the dominant rôle which the Babylonian Academies played for several centuries.”[10]

This supports the notion that great rabbinic academies existed in Babylonia from the very beginning of the Amoraic period.

And according to R. Berel Wein:

“[Rav] is the man who, more than anyone else, made Babylonian Jewry. He settled in the city of Sura, one of the main cities in Babylon, the same city where the prophet Ezekiel lived when he came with the exiles of the First Temple era. Ezekiel had founded an academy which was then close to 700 years old by the time Rav became head of it and turned it into the foremost house of Jewish scholarship not only in Babylon but anywhere in the world. Indeed, it remained the “Harvard” of Jewish academies until around 1000 CE.”

Rav had an associate and rival, Shmuel, who simultaneously established an academy in Nehardea which later relocated to Pumbedita. The argumentative tension between Rav and Shmuel laid the foundation for that argumentative style of debate which was to become the hallmark of Talmudic discourse. 

Either way, according to all these views, there were always flourishing academies in Babylonia during Amoraic times.

NUMBERS OF STUDENTS:

However, a fascinating view is put forward by Dr Henry Abramson[11] who says that the number of scholars studying in the rabbinic academies around the 8th C (which according to all scholars was when the academies were certainly in full operation) is estimated to be between as few as 1 200 and 2 400 and he believed those numbers to be 'considerably exaggerated'. [See here for more on the origins of the yeshiva system.]

Dr Abramson explains that the rabbinic academies were elitist institutions which did not have an open admissions policy. Even the benches were often arranged in such a manner that the greater scholars sat closer to the lecturer, and the less scholarly sat towards the back.

Thus, continues Dr Abramson, the vast majority of the masses could never have a yeshiva education, and were quite illiterate, barely being able to read the prayer book, and with a very limited knowledge of halacha. So much so, that a sense of disenfranchisement took hold of the masses by the scholarly vacuum that was created, and the climate was right for other influences to take hold.

The vacuum was eventually filled by the anti-Rabbinic Karaism movement which by some accounts may have affected up to half of the Jewish population of that time. [For more on Karaites see here].

CONCLUSION:

In a complex study such as this, it is best to avoid the temptation to take sides and to pronounce a winner or a loser.

What emerges, though, is that when one peels away the different layers, some very interesting views begin to surface.

Taking all the various perspectives into consideration, the question becomes even more urgent and burning - what, indeed, was the nature and popularity of the classical academies during the golden age of Talmud study?





[1] THE RISE OF THE BABYLONIAN RABBINIC ACADEMY: A REEXAMINATION OF THE TALMUDIC EVIDENCE, by Jeffrey Rubenstein.
[2] Taanit 24b.
[3] Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia, p. 7
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] The Rise of the Babylonian Rabbinic Academy.
[6] Rubenstein proceeds in great scholarly detail to give actual textual examples supporting his thesis.
[7] Bava Kama 117a.
[8] Rubenstein explains: “Although these narratives are set in Palestine, they are late-Babylonian creations or reworkings of Palestinian sources, hence they point to the situation in Babylonia, not Palestine.”
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Talmudic Academies of Babylonia.
[11] Anan ben David and Karaism (Lecture).

Sunday, 24 March 2019

219) ACADEMIC OR TRADITIONAL TALMUD STUDY?

Zivchei Tzedek by R. Abdallah Somech .
INTRODUCTION:

Some are torn between an agonizing choice:
- to study Talmud (Gemora) in the traditional manner, as in the style of a typical yeshiva;
- or to explore the world of academic Talmud study where variant texts, dates, awareness of the editing process, and the surrounding cultural influences are taken into consideration?

[For examples of such an approach see BabylonianInfluences on the Babylonian Talmud, and for an example of variant texts see And What Does Rashi Say?]

Once again I draw from another fascinating paper by Rabbi Dr Richard Hidary, who had studied under R. Yaakov Elman and is currently a professor at Yeshiva University.[1]
R. Hidary is the perfect person to express his views on the matter as he has studied and taught in both universities and yeshivas. 

[For more of R. Hidary’s research, see Were the Editors of the Bavli More Powerful than its Writers?]

SOME CHALLENGING ‘ACADEMIC’ QUESTIONS:

R. Hidary begins by quoting the following excerpt containing some very challenging questions (and the Reader is left wondering as to its source) [2]:

“How was the Mishnah written?

Did the Men of the Great Assembly [410 to 310 BCE] begin to write it followed by the sages of each generation who each added small amounts until Rabbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi] came and sealed it [around 200 CE]

[The Mishnaic period, however, is generally given as much later, from around 0 to 200CE. Bringing in the Mishnaic period 400 years earlier lends more credence to it[3], but this creates another problem...]

On the other hand, most of it is anonymous and an anonymous Mishnah is [considered to have been authored much later] by R. Meir[136-163 CE]

[So, besides being a later work, if R. Meir did write most of the Mishnah, it suggests that the Mishnah was not really a collaborative work?]

Furthermore, most of the sages mentioned in it are R. Yehudah, R. Shimon, R. Meir and R. Yose who are all the students of R. Akiva?...[So, again, perhaps the Mishna only reflects one school of Jewish thought?]

The order of the Sedarim is clear; however, regarding the Massekhtot, why is Yoma before Shekalim... And so, too, regarding every Massekhet that was not ordered together with others that are similar in content? 

[Does this suggest some extensive but incomplete editing took place after the Mishnah was written?]

And the Tosefta about which we heard that R. Hiyya wrote it – was it written after the Mishnah or at the same time as it?

[Tosefta means ‘supplement’. The Tosefta was compiled in 189 CE and corresponds to the same format of the Mishnah with Sedarim and Messekhtot. It is similarly written in Mishnaic Hebrew although it sometimes contradicts the Mishnah and also contains Midrashic material. The Tosefta often takes anonymous rulings and names the authors and they are not always R. Meir.]

Why did R. Hiyya write it?

If it is additional material that explains issues in the Mishnah, then why did Rabbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi] not include it? After all, it is also stated by the Sages of the Mishnah [i.e it is from the same Mishnaic period. So is something subversive going on here]?

So, too, the Braitot [Braita means 'external'or 'outside' and refers to teachings also from the same Mishnaic period but not from the main academies] – how were they written?

So, too, the Talmud [200-500CE] – how was it written?

And the Saboraic sages...[who followed from 500-650CE, and were known as the editors of the Talmud]...

R. Hidary then points out that while this excerpt appears to resemble a modern course outline at a non-yeshiva academic institution, it is, in fact, a thousand-year-old piece of correspondence sent by the scholars of Kairouan, Tunisia, to Rav Sherira Gaon in 987CE!

Amazingly, we see that what would today pass for academic (as opposed to traditional) questions - which would be shunned by most contemporary non-baal-teshuvah yeshivot - was actually part of the legitimate mainstream scholarly debate of Gaonic times (650-1038).

TEXTUAL DISCREPANCIES:

Here is another example, this time about textual variants:

“In some versions of the Gemara, it is written that if one tells his fellow, ‘Only repay me in front of witnesses,’ and the other one claims ‘I did repay you before this person and that person but they went to a foreign land,’ he is not believed.

However, this is a scribal error which caused teachers to err based on those books.

I have researched the old versions and have found one that is reliable and I have received in Egypt part of an ancient Gemara written on parchment as they used to write five hundred years ago.

I have found two witnesses in the parchments regarding this halacha and in both of them it is written, “If he claimed, ‘I repaid before this person and that person and they went to a foreign land,’ he is believed.””

Once again R. Hidary shows that while this appears similar to something a Cambridge scholar would have written about the Cairo Geniza fragments - or something a Talmudic text critic at Hebrew University would have written - it is, in fact, a quotation from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah[4] from the late 12th century.

He asks:

“If Rambam made efforts to obtain the best manuscripts and evaluate them, does that make him untraditional? Are those of us who take time to read Talmudic manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza - perhaps some of the very manuscripts used by Rambam – also being untraditional?”

If this indeed was the practice of many of our earlier sages, then why is there so much resistance from the traditionalists today, towards those who pursue similar academic lines of study?

THE SPLIT:

R. Hidary then explains when this antagonism towards academic Talmud study may have begun:

“In short, the split between ‘traditional’ and ‘academic’ study is fairly modern and somewhat unfortunate.

One finds manuscript analysis and discussion of redaction in the works of all the Rishonim right alongside and within their substantive commentaries. All the Rishonim lived before printing was invented and therefore had to deal with manuscript analysis.”

And then he pinpoints, historically, just when that shift towards closing the mind to anything outside of the standard traditional texts occurred:

“The split began when the Wissenschaft scholars began to explore mainly academic types of questions.”

THE WISSENSCHAFT DES JUDENTUMS:

The Wissenschaft des Judentums, or Science of Judaism, was a Jewish movement active in Germany in the 1800s which used scientific methods to critically examine rabbinic literature. 

Its early members were Heinrich Heine and Leopold Zunz and they attempted to create a Volk or people and replace religion with culture. Heine and many other members were later to convert to Christianity.

Their aim was to ‘elevate’ Judaism to be on equal footing with the other great cultures of the world. ‘Jewish Studies’ was introduced into the universities as a respectable academic course of study, and the publication of the Jewish Encyclopaedia in 1901-1906 is considered the fruits of its labour. The movement was keen to show that Judaism continued to make important contributions to world civilization throughout the ages.

The Wissenschaft did not despise Judaism and most of its members were happy to be associated with Jewish scholarship. They prided themselves on the tradition particularly of rabbis like Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides, and held them up as shining lights to show how these critical thinkers could and should become models for future intellectual Judaism.

Besides being cultural, the Wissenschaft also had a religious component and many of its members were rabbis who were preparing for a career in the rabbinate. However, some of the group were Enlightenment scholars who slowly turned away from orthodoxy and foreshadowed the birth of the reform movement.

Nonetheless, in the late 1800s, it developed an orthodox branch through members like R. Azriel Hildeshimer who was one of the founders of the Modern Orthodox movement. 

Another such member was R. David Tzvi Hoffman who later taught in R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch’s[5] school in Frankfurt am Main. R. Hoffman was also an original member of the more traditional Moetzes Gedolei haTorah, and yet he wasn’t afraid to quote historians like Heinrich Graetz.


Ironically the orthodox faction of the Wissenschaft came under fire by religious Jews who felt that the presence of respected rabbis would cause more boundaries to become blurred. And it was also the target of Christians who felt that the more liberal branch would attract non-Jewish converts and keep Jews from converting to Christianity and eventually, the government closed its synagogue which was run by Leopold Zunz (and which, incidentally, had an organ).

All being said and done, it was the Wissenschaft and its flirt with the left which largely created the negative attitude towards academic Judaism, which still remains and is very much prevalent today.

THOSE UNAFFECTED BY THE WISSENSCHAFT:

R. Hidary reminds us that during this time there were some Ashkenazi and certainly Sefaradic Acharonim who were not affected by the polemics, agendas and sometimes liberal associations of the Wissenschaft

These would include rabbis who were able to straddle both academic and traditional Talmud study:

YISRAEL MOSHE HAZZAN (1808-1863):

R. Hazzan was born in Izmir, Turkey, and grew up in Jerusalem and served as a chief rabbi of Rome.
He possessed sufficient independence of mind to speak out against superstitious practices of Italian Jewry such as washing corpses in warm water and not allowing clocks in a synagogue yard.

He authored a work, Iyye haYam[6], a commentary on the Responsa of the Gaonim which also deals with the thorny issue of when the Talmud was finally put into writing. 

He analysed the Gaonic chain of tradition arguing that (the Spanish version of Iggeret Sherira Gaon was the original version and that) the Talmud was only written towards the end of the Gaonic period (around 1038) which is about 500 years later than commonly believed.



R. NACHMAN NATAN CORONEL (1810-1890):

R. Nachman Natan Coronel was born in Amsterdam and worked in Jerusalem and Safed. He collected rare rabbinical manuscripts and sold some to European libraries. He authored numerous Halachik works as well as his Beit Natan which contains a number of manuscript variants for Masechet Berachot.

Besides his copious writing on rabbinic matters, he was also awarded the gold medal for art and science by the emperor of Austria.

CHACHAM ABDALLAH SOMECH (1813-1889):

Chacham Abdallah Somech was a respected posek or Halachik decisor, as well the Rosh Yeshiva of Midrash Beit Zilka in Baghdad.

He writes:

“A book has come into our hands whose title is Dikduke Soferim by Rabbi Refael Natan Neta [Rabbinowicz]...

He merited to enter the Bavarian State Library in Munich and found there a great find: a manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud from the year 1390.

It contains many variant readings from the Talmudic text in our printed editions. There are many sugyot [sections of Talmud] that are difficult but according to the reading in that manuscript they can be explained with ease.”[7]

Obituary for the author of Dikdukei Soferim - R. Refael Nata Rabbinowicz [8] - in the Jewish Standard, 7 December 1888, 


ACADEMIC SCHOLARSHIP TODAY:

R. Hidary acknowledges that some academic scholars today do assume a mocking attitude towards anything of a rabbinic nature. It is also true that the yeshiva world often mocks the academic scholars. But he also says that many such scholars also started out with yeshiva training.

He sincerely believes that both the yeshiva and the academic worlds can co-exist and be mutually beneficial. He makes a very interesting point:

“...a 5-10 % investment of one’s learning time in ‘academic’ areas of textual and historical analysis will yield results many times over in the precision and depth of a student’s substantive analysis.

Every Talmud student should be drilled on basic dates, such as when the Mishna was composed, and know the names of the cities where the twenty most often quoted Tannaim and Amoraim were active, what generation they lived in, and who their teachers and students were.

I would further propose the introduction of some of the following into the curriculum: readings from Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon; basics of manuscript analysis; introduction to Aramaic grammar; an outline of the history of the Jews in Israel and Babylonia during the Talmudic era and the functions of basic Rabbinic institutions, such as the Nassi, the Reish Galuta...the background cultures of the Romans and Sassanians; how to find and use Midrash Halacha, Tosefta, Yerushalmi and Geonic material; background on the biographies, methods and works of the Rishonim; and approaches to the study of Aggadah.”


CONCLUSION: 

Perhaps the best way to sum up R. Richard Hidary’s approach of mutual compromise and benefit, is to take note of the Aramaic wording of the title of his paper: 

'Hilkakh Nimrinhu le-Tarvaihu' ...Therefore let us say both!



ON A PERSONAL NOTE:

R. Hidary concludes by writing that Yeshiva University “employs some of the most brilliant and talented minds in both areas of traditional and academic Talmud study.”

When I was at a yeshiva in New York, I expressed the desire to just go and have a look at Yeshiva University as it always held some strange allure for me. I was told not even to step anywhere near its vicinity.

I never did go even to just have a look.

That was a decision I regret to this day.



ADDENDUM:

Rabbi Hidary has kindly given me permission to provide a link to his original article.

https://www.academia.edu/1904421/Traditional_versus_Academic_Talmud_Study_Hilkakh_Nimrinhu_le-Tarvaihu


[1] Traditional versus Academic Talmud Study: “Hilkakh Nimrinhu le-Tarvaihu”, by Rabbi Dr Richard Hidary.
[2] Parentheses are mine.
[3] Some put the date of the beginning of the Mishnaic period at 273 BCE.  See Chabad.org –The Mishnaic Age.
[4] Hilchot Malveh veLoveh 15:2.
[5] It must be mentioned, though, that R. Hirsch was a staunch opponent of the Wissenschaft.
[6]Siman 187.
[7] Zivchei Tzedek haChadashot, siman 140.
[8] The newspaper article refers to R.Rabinowicz as Nathan Rephael while Chacham Abdallah refers to him as Refael Natan Neta.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

218) THE MAIMONIDEAN BROTHERHOOD:

Fragment of a letter from Rambam, as found in the Cairo Geniza.
                                                     MAIMONIDEAN CONFLICT - PART III

RAMBAM’S CORRESPONDENCE WITH A BAGHDADI JEW:


INTRODUCTION:

If eyes are the window to the soul, then letters are the window to the persona. Maimonides, known as Rambam (1135-1204) was a prolific writer of books - but it is through his letters that we gain a glimpse of his real personality.

In this essay, we will look at one such letter - originally written in Arabic and which also serves as a responsum - to a certain Baghdadi Jew by the name of Josef Ibn Gabir (Jabir).[1]

JOSEF IBN GABIR:

It’s not easy to put one’s finger on the status of Josef Ibn Gabir because on the one hand he appears to be a simple man, referring to himself as an am ha’aterz - while on the other hand, he appears to be involved in the great ideological controversy between Rambam and the esteemed Gaon of Baghdad, Samuel ben Ali. [See The Maimonidean Controversies.]

Either way, Rambam is most respectful in his letter, as he addresses Mar (Mr) Josef Ibn Gabir in the third person.[2]

Rambam begins by saying that because Josef Ibn Gabir is thirsty for understanding:
“...I must tell you...that you are not justified in regarding yourself as an am ha-aretz.”[3]

The desire to understand a matter in its depth exempts one from the category of a simpleton.

MISHNEH TORAH:

Josef Ibn Gabir cannot read Hebrew. But he can read Arabic and he has read Rambam’s commentary on the Mishna which was written in Arabic.

Now he wants to study Rambam’s magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah - a fourteen-volume summary of the Talmud - which was written in Hebrew.

Josef Ibn Gabir suggests that Rambam translate the Mishneh Torah into Arabic as it would have a wider audience and cater for people like him!

Rambam responds:

“It makes also no difference whether you study in the holy language, or in Arabic, or in Aramaic; it matters only whether it is done with understanding…”

Rambam continues by mentioning that he is, paradoxically, focussing on having all his previous Arabic writings translated into Hebrew. So, instead, Josef Ibn Gabir should try learning the Hebrew of Mishneh Torah, little by little” because:

 “It is not so difficult, as the book is written in an easy style, and if you master one part you will soon be able to understand the whole work.”

SAMUEL BEN ALI - THE GAON OF BAGHDAD:

Next, Rambam deals with the thorny issue of the anti-Maimonidean rhetoric which emanated from Josef Ibn Gabir’s home city, Baghdad. He referred to the fact “that some scholars in Baghdad reject some of my decisions...” This is a reference to the fierce opposition from the highly respected Samuel ben Ali, Gaon of Baghdad, regarded as one of the most prominent Babylonian scholars of the 12th century, and who was Rambam’s biggest detractor during his lifetime.

Although the Gaonic period had officially ended by 1038, for the next two hundred years, certain prominent rabbis were respectfully referred to by the title Gaon. Ironically, in the case of Samuel ben Ali, he seemed to perpetuate some of the lavish and pretentious practices of both the Gaonim and Exilarchs of the previous era.

Samuel ben Ali was very powerful and influential in the Jewish world. According to an account by the traveller, Pethahiah of Regensburg:

"In the whole of Assyria, in Damascus, in the towns of Persia and Media and in Babylon, they have no dayyan [judge] except one assigned by Samuel, head of the academy, and he appoints judges and teachers in every town."

Samuel ben Ali was not averse to placing family members in positions of power either. He even provided a teaching position for his daughter, said to have been a Talmudic scholar in her own right. She taught “through a window of the building in which she sat, the pupils outside below unable to see her.”[4]

Furthermore, his two sons-in-law, Zechariah and Azariah[5] were also both appointed to positions of power.

IDEOLOGICAL CONFLICT:

Rambam had severely criticised the nepotism and the sometimes forceful means of collection of funding for scholars and academies which was often adopted by the Gaonim and Exilarchs.

FINANCING AND FUNDRAISING:

In fact, Rambam was even against financial support to scholars in general who did not work but were full time students.

Rambam wrote:

 “For as we look into the [earlier] sayings of the honorable sages, we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for the honorable and cherished academies.”[6]

TALMUD ONLY:

Additionally, Rambam also disagreed with the approach of the Gaonic Yeshivot which had only one subject in their curriculum - namely, Talmud study.

MISHNEH TORAH:

These criticisms were not minor condemnations but were seen as threatening the very essence of Judaism as was known and practised in those communities. It is, therefore, not hard to understand why there was such opposition to Rambam who was regarded as an ideological threat to the mainstream, and who was disrupting the status quo.

It didn’t help matters either when Rambam wrote his Mishneh Torah which - being a summary of the entire Talmud - was seen as rather subversive in that it undermined the ultimate authority of the rabbinic leadership. This was because ordinary people themselves, could now easily consult the Mishneh Torah, written in simple Hebrew, and have no need to confer with expert authorities. It even came with perhaps the first example of an index to a Torah work.

IN DEFENCE OF RAMBAM:

Rambam was well aware of his opposition in Baghdad by Samuel ben Ali and mentions it very politely:

“I have been informed - although I do not know whether it is true - that there is in your city somebody who speaks evil against me and tries to gain honor by misrepresentation of my teaching.”

Rambam also knows how Josef Ibn Gabir had tried to intervene in the controversy and defend him. This was actually the core reason why Josef Ibn Gabir had originally asked Rambam to translate his Mishneh Torah into Arabic – so that he could read it, arm himself with knowledge, and support him:

“I have heard also that you protested against this and reprimanded the slanderer.
Do not act in this way!
I forgive everybody who is opposed to me because of his lack of intelligence, even when he, by opposing, seeks his personal advantage.”

And then Rambam adopts a ‘live and let live’ approach when he writes:

“He [Samuel ben Ali] does no harm to me…While he is pleased, I do not lose anything…

You trouble yourself with useless quarrels, as I do not need the help of other men…”

THE ISSUE OF REVIVAL OF THE DEAD:

A commonly held view at that time, and still today, is that after the Messiah comes there will ultimately be a state of Techiyat haMetim where the dead will arise within their bodies.
Rambam adopted a  slightly nuanced approach to that concept. [See What was Rambam’s Real View on ‘The Revival of the Dead’?]

Rambam mentions this in his letter:

“The statement you have heard, namely, that I deny in my work the resurrection of the dead, is nothing more than a malicious calumny.
He who asserted this is either a wicked man who misrepresents my words, or an ignorant one who does not understand my views on olam haba [the World to Come].
In order to make impossible any further mistake or doubt, I have composed in the meantime a special treatise on this subject...[7]

IRRATIONAL BUT HARMLESS PERCEPTIONS:

Rambam turns a blind eye to certain irrational follies which are entertained by the masses:

“It will not harm you religiously to think that there are corporeal beings in the world to come until you can establish rationally the authentic nature of their existence.
Even if you think that they eat, drink, propagate in the upper sphere or in the Gan Eden, it will not hurt your faith.
There are other more widespread doctrinal follies to which some cling and yet their basic religious beliefs were not damaged.”

However, for those seeking a deeper understanding:

“...in refutation of this notion, it is important to project the authentic interpretation of the rabbinic statement "that there is no eating or drinking in the world to come," from which we may deduce that there are no corporeal beings...”

RESPONSUM:

The letter contains a number of other unrelated issues as well and is regarded as a responsum on some Halachic matters.

This letter is important because it clarifies a previous contradiction within Rambam’s earlier writing.
In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah[8], he writes that a person praying without a minyan should not recite the kedushat yotzer (which is between barechu and shema).

In this letter, he writes that it is permissible to recite it as it only records the kedusha which is said by the angels but is not a kedusha in itself (like the kedusha in the amidah).

Interestingly, Rambam’s son was later to refer to a letter (probably this one) where his father had changed his mind from what he had previously written in Mishneh Torah![9]

THE MAIMONIDEAN BROTHERHOOD:

The letter contains some interesting terms of endearment for Josef Ibn Gabir as well as for those who follow the rationalist path in general. In one instance Rambam refers to Josef as ‘our brother’ and in another place he writes:

“You are my beloved pupil, and so are all those who are inclined to pursue zealously the study of Torah and attempt to understand even one biblical verse or a single halakhah.”

Thus Rambam - by alluding to a brotherhood - uses terminology generally associated with mystical schools and refers to all those who ‘attempt to understand’, as being part of a fraternity of intellectual searchers.
Those excluded from this brotherhood would be the masses “who do not possess the capacity to reflect and who do not concentrate on the roots of religion but [only] on its branches.”




SOURCES:
A Maimonides Reader, by I. Twersky.
A Letter by Rambam to a Simple Jew, by Mitchell First.
A Responsum by Maimonides; Maimonides' Rational Approach to Halakhic Problems, by Leon D. Stitskin.




[1] See Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, pp. 402-418.
[2] This is omitted from the English translation, which follows, as it is too cumbersome.
[3] Translation from A Maimonides Reader by I. Twersky
[4] Pethahiah, p. 9f; L. Greenhut (1905), 10.
[5] There is some controversy as to whether these names got mixed up with each other in a copyist’s error. Some believe that Samuel’s daughter was engaged to Azariah who passed away before the marriage and then she subsequently married Zechariah. Another view is that Samuel had two daughters who married scholars by both names.
[6] See Rambam’s commentary on Avot 4:7.
[7] This treatise was known as Maamar Techiyat haMeitim and was written in 1191.
[8] Hilchot Tefillah 7:17.
[9] See Kesef Mishnah to 7:17.