Sunday 23 June 2019


A manuscript dated 13-15th C from the R. Yosef Kapach collection donated to the Israel National Library.


Rabbi Yosef Kapach (1917-2000), widely considered to have been a world expert in Maimonidean texts, fascinatingly describes how he searched for and collected fragments of old texts - and how, after years of research, he eventually reconstructed what are probably the most accurate versions of Rambam’s texts today.

R. Yosef Kapach 1917-2000.

Most of R. Yosef Kapach’s scholarship has not been translated and is therefore inaccessible to the English speaking world.

This article offers a glimpse into the stories behind the discoveries of some of these old texts which could so easily have been lost forever had it not been for the adventurous detective work and relentless determination of  a Yemenite ‘Indiana Jones’ duo - R. Yosef and his grandfather R. Yichya Kapach.

The grandfather, R. Yichya Qafich (Kapach).


At an early age, the young Yosef lost both his father and mother and he was raised by his grandfather, R. Yichya Kapach (or Qafich) who was a leader of the Yemenite rationalist school known as the Talmidei haRambam[1], or Students of Rambam.

R. Yichya then passed away when Yosef was only 14 years old and although only a teenager, he inherited his grandfather’s rabbinic leadership position.

One day, the young R. Yosef and two other friends went to visit the gravesite of his grandfather R. Yichya. Somehow they were arrested and accused of burning the gravesite of one of R. Yichya’s rivals, who represented the opposing camp of Jewish mystics. The Yemenite rationalists and mystics were separated by some intense rivalry and conflict.

After being arrested, it was soon discovered that R. Yosef was technically an orphan and under the Orphans Decree of the Islamic State, he was declared to be a ward of the state and therefore subject to conversion to Islam. A magnanimous Imam[2] stepped in and suggested that in order to bypass the conversion, a bride should be sought for R. Yosef.

The King’s physician, Yichye al-Abyadh, who also happened to be a rabbi, arranged a wedding between Bracha Saleh and R. Yosef and all was good.

Bracha Kapach 1922-2013.

The rivalry between the Yemenite mystics and rationalists was very real. When R. Yichya was still alive, he went so far as to teach that the Zohar was a forgery which even contained aspects of idolatry! He referred to those steeped in mystical traditions as ‘ikshim’ or ‘people who withhold knowledge from their contemporaries’.

It has been said that his grandson, R. Yosef, later distanced himself from such an extreme anti-mystical stance after he, in 1943, immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, and joined Merkaz haRav Yeshiva (founded by Rav Kook) and later became a Judge on the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Israel.
In any event, he never backed down from his belief that it was still preferable to draw spiritual sustenance from Rambam than from elsewhere.


Back in Yemen in 1927, a young Yosef Kapach assisted his grandfather to discover and retrieve the oldest existing Mishna commentary (encompassing all Six Orders) from a Geniza in Sana’a. This commentary was written by the early Rishon, Rabbeinu Natan Av haYeshiva (d. 1051). Rabbeinu Natan represented an unbroken Palestinian tradition (as opposed to the Babylonian tradition) on the meanings and nuances of disputed words. Rabbeinu Natan wrote in Judeo-Arabic and it was R. Yosef Kapach who translated this definitive work into Hebrew in the late 1950s.[3]

This is the story of the discovery of the lost text:

In the surrounding Yemenite villages where R. Kapach grew up, the Geniza was often situated in a vault under the Ark. A Geniza is a temporary storage area in a synagogue for old and worn texts. The material remains in the Geniza until a sufficient quantity of stock is amassed, at which point it is retrieved and buried in a Jewish cemetery. This practice was and still is observed in synagogues around the world. Fortunately, for historians and those interested in the preservation of accurate texts, these collections of ‘sacred trash[4] were sometimes never buried, and remained to be discovered later.

In Yemen, the old texts and books were respectfully placed in large earthenware jars or containers just before they were placed in the ground.  Sometimes texts were assigned to the Geniza without any appreciation of their rarity or value. And sometimes the gravediggers were too lazy to dig deep holes to bury the jars. 

This meant that after the rainy seasons, the tops of the jars would become exposed.
R. Kapach’s grandfather instructed the caretakers of the cemetery to inform him whenever these jars appeared. One Thursday evening, when Yosef was about ten years old, the caretaker came to tell his grandfather that one such jar had surfaced. The next morning the two of them went to investigate. Because his grandfather was over eighty years old at the time and had difficulty in bending down, the young boy was assigned the task of opening the jar. Inside he found a stash of moist and muddy papers which he eagerly gathered and the two returned home to prepare for Shabbat.

After Shabbat the painstaking task began of separating the moist pages which were stuck together. The documents turned out to be fragments of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, extracts from Rav Saadia Gaon, Midrash haGadol, and Mishna commentaries.

But the greatest find was an old hand-written book with all the pages stuck to each other. Together, grandfather and grandson soaked the papers in clean water making sure the writing would not be damaged further.

R. Yosef Kapach writes:

“I still remember how the pages were strewn across the entire room of my grandfather's that they could dry...
This book was the only surviving sort of its kind in the world, which, had it not been for this action, it would have been lost to the world. The book was missing a few pages... but the remainder of the book, to our delight, was found altogether complete, from beginning to end."

Because of this remarkable find, we now have a copy of the oldest commentary on the Mishna, and the lost writings of Rabbeinu Natan Av haYeshiva have seen the light of day again.

But that was not his only important find:


What follows is a brief digest of the twenty-page Introduction to R. Yosef Kapach’s 24 volume[5] edition of Mishneh Torah. I have drawn extensively from a presentation of the Introduction by Michael J. Bohnen.[6]


R. Yosef Kapach writes that he was raised with a great love for two special ‘princes’ of Israel, namely Rav Saadia Gaon and Rambam. His Gemara study was strongly biased towards the interpretation and understanding of Rambam.

He had one great advantage as a native of Yemen, and that was that he could read and understand the Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishna in the original Arabic. His early schooling was grounded in the study of many classical texts which were originally written in Arabic.

In Yemen, young children were often employed as copyists of ancient fragments of texts which were still quite commonplace at that time, and when he was just thirteen years old, he had already completed a copy of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters).


His grandfather R. Yichya and his teachers did something few would or could do today, and that was to offer the possibility of any number of variant readings of different texts to the students. This sparked a spirit of textual adventure within the young Yosef and it never left him.


He describes how, while most of his fellow students studied Mishneh Torah with the aid of printed books, his grandfather taught him from manuscripts which were several centuries old. He soon realized that in the manuscripts:

 Almost every halacha had annotations with variant readings.”


The debates in his grandfather’s house with other scholars over the variant readings were constant and unending. Yet they were happier to study the variant manuscript texts over the printed versions which were clearly regarded an immensely inaccurate:

The errors and deficiencies of the printed texts were well known...
 These matters were inscribed on my heart, and I grew up with the assumption that there were two types of Maimonides texts in the world: that of the Yemenite manuscripts and that of the printed book.


He was proud of the Yemenite tradition to always uphold the integrity and accuracy of Maimonidean texts.

Even during the lifetime of Rambam, the Jews of Yemen sent expert copyists to Egypt to ensure they produced accurate texts and they would regularly return to Egypt to include any changes or updates as were necessary.

This is backed up by historical evidence that many of the corrections and emendations which Rambam himself made after completing his works and which are not found in the printed texts, are indeed to be found in the Yemenite manuscripts.

Regarding the Yemenite copyists:

“[T]hey never amended any book based on reasoning, and no emendation or variant reading was suggested unless it appeared in the ancient manuscripts.


R. Kapach emphasises that very few of Rambam’s own corrections to his works ever made it to the printers. The corrections which Rambam had made were often added by himself in the margins of his own manuscripts. Sometimes the printers inserted some of these corrections in the wrong places using their ‘logic’ to present them as part of unrelated texts. Other times they would just be ignored.

The Mishneh Torah was subjected to severe editing by the printers, and various editors...made emendations of style, language, the structure of sentences and the division of halachot...”


The Mishneh Torah was heavily edited, to the extent that there is hardly any halacha that has not been emended.

I know of no other book that was so severely emended, and the reason is clear. There was no other book that so widely and rapidly disseminated in many countries, and in particular in the "lands of the east." This distribution and dissemination was in manuscript form, so that everyone had a hand in it....

[E]very third or fourth rate scholar who thought himself capable of doing so, would presume to try his hand at making emendations and corrections according to his own understanding.”

[For more on extreme editing and emendation see And What Does Rashi Say?]


R. Kapach points out that, in his view, the use and consideration of newly discovered ancient texts was vital to the accurate transmission of the Mesora, or Torah transmission process.

This view is at variance with many of our contemporary rabbis who would frown upon such practices because they would regard these old texts as being ‘outside of the Mesora’ since they were lost to the official cannon of the tradition.

However, these Yemenites maintained that they had learned the imperative and permissibility of using ‘lost texts’ from their master, the Rambam himself.

Rambam engaged in deliberately searching for the most ancient texts he could find to better his research and even to make changes to accepted existing texts. Rambam wrote:

"[A]nd I have already examined the variant texts, … and I have in Egypt an excerpt of an old Gemara written on parchment in the manner in which they wrote over 500 years ago."[7]


“Also, there were truly great scholars who expressed their opinion here and there as a result of a difficult issue raised by the words of Maimonides, and they suggested an alternative reading. They never even thought of changing the text of the book, but others after them did erase the words of Maimonides and insert the alternative reading proposed by the earlier scholars, thereby distorting the meaning and purpose of Maimonides.


R. Kapach then makes the interesting point that a work like the Shulchan Aruch - which was printed and disseminated during the lifetime of its author, R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575) - was not subjected to “assaults” on the text because there was oversight and tight control by the author and his agents.
This was not the case with Rambam who lived long before the printing press and to complicate matters even more, his works were hand copied by many copyists and disseminated very widely and very rapidly.


R. Kapach relates that he left Yemen with all his research and text material with him, but sadly a great portion of it was stolen upon his arrival in the Holy Land!

This was not an uncommon occurrence when Yemenites and Jews from North African countries arrived in Israel in the early days of the State. [See The Aleppo Codex.]


R. Kapach writes about how his father and grandfather spared no effort or expense to secure authentic manuscripts, sometimes even single pages, and paid agents to scour the various Genizas and other sources to obtain these texts.

The following is an extract from a letter his grandfather had written to his student who he heard was passing through a village called Kirya:

“[A certain] Salam Kalif [who was in charge of the synagogue with the genizas] said he would open [the genizas] and remove what was desired and reseal the genizas. Therefore please make an effort to collect what you can find from the pages of the Mishnah in Arabic and the Mishnah Torah manuscripts and pay the person who reseals the geniza and write a check on our account for whatever you expend...

Do not fail in this matter. Pay the person to open the geniza and gather the pages in whatever condition you find them in, even if torn, and don’t worry about the cost of the opening, closing or the time for resealing the geniza. We will pay the full cost immediately...

Even torn pages of the Mishnah should not be left behind, but take them, and even half and quarter pages, and continue to search in the geniza under the hall, in addition to the two that are sealed. Try hard and don’t worry about the dirt and dust, and even pay the person who removes the pages and gather them. Don’t be lazy.”


R. Kapach notes that often commentators spent much time on complicated explanations and pilpul (technical arguments) when they explained Rambam’s words. However, with the correct texts, a simple change of a sentence, word or even a letter, would resolve the matter. Sometimes the Hebrew letter Mem Sofit, become a Hei with the just two spaces and the problem is solved. He quotes a profound observation of a Yemenite elder:

"[T]he words of Maimonides need no explanation, simply comprehension."

As to why Rambam did not engage in the age-old rabbinic custom of argument and discussion, R. Kapach writes:

“This is the rationale and reason that Maimonides did not write in his great work ‘some say this and some say that’ except in a very few places that can be counted by a child. According to his opinion, this approach would have taken us back to the days of creation, and not just to the status of a ‘nation without a true book’ but even the level and science of learning is diminished.”


Rambam is regarded by some as having been quite controversial for his statement:

“My goal in this work is brevity with completeness – so that the reader might encompass all that is found in the Mishnah and Talmud...

In short, outside this work there was to be no need after the Torah for another book to learn anything whatsoever that is required in the whole Torah, whether it be a law of the Torah or of the rabbis.”[8]

This prompted responses like the following from the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher 1250-1327):

“All who issue rulings from the words of Maimonides who are not expert enough in Mishnah and Gemara to know from where Maimonides derives his statements, will err in permitting the prohibited and prohibiting the permitted, because each reader thinks he understands it, but he doesn’t. If he doesn’t understand Mishnah and Gemara and does not understand how to confirm and verify a statement, he will stumble in the law and its application. Therefore no one should rely on his reading of the Mishneh Torah to rule on matters unless he finds a proof text in the Gemara.”[9]

However, this prompted counter-responses in defence of a plain reading of Rambam to inform practical Halacha, like that of R. Chaim ben Attar[10]:

“If you would disagree with the words of Maimonides which mention only the halacha, I have already written in several places that Maimonides expected that people would issue rulings based on his book without any need to review the Talmud, and you should remember this principle.”

And in another place he similarly wrote[11] 

Maimonides expected the student of his book to understand matters based exclusively on what he wrote.”

Not surprisingly, in support of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah remaining a standard from which to determine practical Halacha, R. Kapach wrote:

It is clear that the method of Maimonides is a standard for the whole world to use, except for the [times when there was a][12] single leading scholar of a generation.
That time has passed when we had a single leading scholar of a generation. Today, when we have many single leading scholars of the generation... according to the decision and ruling of the Kesef Mishneh, we should rely only on Maimonides.”

There was an agreement in Toledo that no one should rule in any matter against Rambam.[13] The same applied in Castile and in Tunis.

R. Avraham Zacuto wrote:  

When the Mishneh Torah was published and distributed in all of the Diaspora, all Israel agreed to follow it and to act according to it in all laws of the Torah.[14]

This last point is an interesting one because the argument usually goes that the reason why we accepted the Babylonian Talmud over the Jerusalem Talmud is that ‘all Israel agree to follow it’.

And the reason why we follow R. Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch over the Mishneh Torah of Rambam is also that ‘all Israel agree to follow it’.

And here we see, historically, that after Rambam wrote his magnum opus ‘all Israel agree to follow it’ – yet for some reason it was nevertheless superseded by another code.


[1]This movement was later to be known as Dor De’ah.
[2] Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din.
[3] Published by El haMekorot.
[4] After the book entitled
Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.
[5] Posthumously divided into 25 volumes. 
[6] Introduction of Rabbi Yosef Kapach to his edition of Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, translated by Michael J. Bohnen.
[7] Laws of Lender and Borrower, ch 15.
[8] Introduction to Sefer haMitzvot.
[9] Responsa 31,9.
[10] Chidushim on Berachot 60.
[11] Chidushim on Sukkah 12.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Y. Baer, History of the Jews in Christian Spain, page 955.
[14] Sefer Yuchasin, p.122.
[15] Bava Kama p. 1, note 1.



R. Kapach offers an interesting explanation for why Rabad (R. Avraham ben David 1125-1198) was always opposing the views as put forward by Rambam to the extent that he often seems to be Rambam’s nemesis. He suggests that Rabad didn’t necessarily oppose Rambam because he always differed with him, but rather to use every opportunity he could to show that there was another way of looking at the matter at hand:

“It seems to me that we should not assume that Rabad agreed where he was silent or that he disagreed where he commented, but rather that he was disclosing to the reader the existence of another opinion.

What Rabad wrote should not be considered his view or decision, except in the case of his responsa which are applied halacha, and in his hidushim on the Talmud, but not his hassagot in opposition to Maimonides...”

He brings a support for his views based on R. Atlas’ commentary on Rabad[15] where he notes several places where the opinion of Rabad in his Hasagot contradicts his opinion in his commentary. R. Atlas believed that Rabad changed his mind regarding the Hasagot.

However, R. Kapach disagrees with R. Atlas because if that were true, then Rabad would have erased or corrected his Hasagot, and we would have had different versions of the Hassagot – the original ones and the corrected ones:

“But we have found none. Therefore it seems clear to me that he did not intend to express his own opinion in the hassagot.”


There are so many commentaries on Rambam that R. Kapach decided it prudent to become familiar with each one but set a realistic goal of studying (only!) 300 works:

“And so I began my work, reading one at a time... I had no staff of assistants, no company of workers, no group of researchers, no assembly of editors, no team of proofreaders, and no secretaries... therefore the work took longer than I originally estimated. Before I reached my goal of 300 works (I was still short by about 25), I realized that I was no longer young... and...I decided to stop at that point, to organize and publish what I had completed...

As the ancients said, when an idea is born in this world, it does not remain unfulfilled, but it travels through space until it finds an incubator in which to develop, it grows skin and muscle and becomes a reality. I hope that others will complete the work, if not in my way, then in theirs.

I will not hold back photographic copies of any of the manuscripts in my possession that can be used for editing the books of Maimonides...Except for the dozens of isolated very ancient folios, pages and half pages covering all parts of the Mishneh Torah, which are close to disintegration and can’t be passed from hand to hand.”

1 comment:

  1. WOW!
    To paraphrase: "Since the hasagot of Raavad are not correct, they cannot be his opinion - he is just quoting there are other opinions" (and WHOSE are those "other opinions"?!)
    Kappach always found ways to stick to the truth in a way that avoids the dead-end of bitter polemics. That is sheer genius!
    And you conclude your presentation by saying "for some reason [the Mishne Torah] was superseded by other codes". This is where the discussion starts!