Monday, December 1, 2014

History: The Early Rishonim of North Africa

Rav Leibowitz

Note: This post has been incorporated into a pamphlet on the Early Rishonim.  It can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.  

Introduction to Torah Learning in the Maghreb of North Africa[1]

According to Sefer ha-Kabbalah, one of the four captives was R. Chushiel of Italy (d. 1027).  He was ransomed by the Jewish community in Kairouan, North Africa.[2]  R. Chushiel was a leading talmid chacham, who had likely studied under the Geonim.  After being redeemed by the Kairouan community, R. Chushiel remained there and eventually headed the Kairouan yeshiva. 

The communities in North Africa maintained a very strong connection with the Bavel Yeshivos.  With Egypt serving as the gateway to the Maghreb, major travel routes existed from the Babylonian region to North Africa.  The constant traffic between the two linked the new Torah centers of North Africa with the centuries-old Bavel center.[3]

R. Yaacov and R. Nissim of Kairouan

R. Yaacov was Rosh Yeshiva in Kairouan when R.  Chushiel arrived in Kairouan.  R. Yaacov famously sent a letter to the Gaonim in Bavel on behalf of the Kairouan community requesting an elaboration of the masorah from Moshe Rabbenu until the redaction of the Mishna.  The response, known as Igeres Rav Shreira Gaon, became a classic text in the study of the masorah

R. Yaacov’s son, R. Nisim (d. c. 1060) was another important rabbinic figure from North Africa at this time.  R. Nisim studied under Rav Hai Gaon in Sura, and was given the honorific title, “Gaon,” even though he was not actually one of the Bavel Geonim.  R. Nisim wrote a commentary on the Talmud that was a comprehensive Hebrew paraphrase of the Gemara.  Unlike R. Chananel’s commentary that summarized the Talmudic discussion, R. Nisim’s commentary was a paraphrase of the entire discussion.  One can basically follow the entire Talmudic discussion by reading R. Nisim’s commentary with no need to even consult the text of the Gemara itself.  R. Nisim’s commentary has generally been lost, with only a few fragments remaining. 

R. Nisim also wrote another Talmud commentary called Sefer Ha-Mafteach le-Manulei ha-Talmud.  This commentary focused on “unlocking” specific complicated passages by providing necessary background information not included in the Talmudic discussion.  Sefer Mafteach Manulei Ha-Talmud is printed in the margins of standard editions of the Talmud on tractates Berachos, Shabbos, and Eruvin under the title, “Rav Nisim Gaon”.  The introduction to the sefer is printed in standard edition of the Talmud on tractate Berachos.

R. Chananel b. Chushiel

When R. Chushiel arrived in Kairouan, R. Yaacov b. Nisim was Rosh Yeshiva.  Upon Rav Yaacov’s death, R. Chushiel succeeded him, and this position was then passed on to R. Chushiel’s son, Rabbenu Chananel (d. 1056).  R. Chananel was greatly influenced by the Geonic teachings, which were dominant in Kairouan at that time, plus the Italian tradition he had learned from his father. 

R. Chananel’s major work was a running commentary on the Talmud.  In general, R. Chananel’s commentary explains and summarizes the Talmudic discussion and then concludes with a halakhic ruling on the issue under discussion.  His commentary prominently features teachings from the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Geonim.[4]

It appears that R. Chananel’s commentary was only written on those Sedarim that were relevant to daily life: Moed, Nezeikin, Nashim, plus Mesechtos Berachos and Chullin.[5]  Unlike earlier commentaries of the Geonim that focused on specific difficult passages, R. Chananel’s commentary was a running commentary that covered every sugyah.  R. Chananel’s commentary was also unique in that it was written in Hebrew, not Arabic like many of the commentaries of the Geonim. 

During the 11th century and first half of the 12th century, R. Chananel’s commentary was the dominant commentary in Sefardic lands, and by the middle of the 12th century R. Chananel’s commentary had penetrated the Ashkenazic circles of Northern Europe. 

R. Chananel’s commentary had a significant influence on later commentators.  For example, R. Nasan b. Yechiel of Rome in his 11th century Italian dictionary, Sefer ha-Aruch, quotes from R. Chananel’s commentary often.  We will see that R. Yitzchak Alfasi (Rif) also quotes R. Chananel often in the Halachos.  The talmudists of Provance and the Ba’alei Tosafos - specifically Rashbam and R. Tam - also quote R. Chananel often.

[1] General History of the Maghreb - The “Maghreb” is the Northern region of Africa, excluding the eastern most segment where Egypt is located.  The Mediterranean coastline of the Maghreb was an important tract of land throughout history as it was home to many important port cities.         

During the times of Jewish Monarchy and throughout the period of the Anshei Keneses HaGedola and the Zugos, the coast of North West Africa, a region known as the Maghreb, was ruled by the Carthaginian Empire.  Their capital, Carthage, was a city in North Africa that was on the outskirts of modern day city of Tunis.  Carthage was originally a city-state of a Semitic people called the Phoenicians.  They were from the City of Tyre (צור) and the general region of modern day Lebanon.  In circa 650 BCE, the Carthaginians gained independence from the Phoenicians and established an empire on a significant part of the western coast of the North Africa.  For much of its existence, the Carthaginian Empire was in a state of war with neighboring Greece and Rome.  In 146 BCE, Carthage fell to Rome in the Third Punic War, and the Romans took control over the Maghreb coast.                      
For most of the period of the Tanaaim (100 BCE – 200  CE) and Amoraim (200 – 500), the Maghreb Coast was part of the Roman Empire.  But, in the 5th Century, the Coast of the Maghreb was conquered by the Vandals, a Germanic Tribe that had embraced Arian Christianity in the 4th centuryArianism was a form of Christianity based on the teachings of Arius (d. 336).  His teachings were at odds with the Roman Catholic Church and were deemed heretical by mainstream Christianity.  The Vandals held control of the coast of North Africa until the 6th century when the Eastern Roman Empire led by Justinian regained control of the coast. In the 7th century, Arab forces from Egypt invaded and conquered the coast, and in the 11th century, various fanatical Muslim tribes, such as the Almoravids and Almohads of Morocco, conquered the Maghreb and even extended their power into Southern Spain.  Hence, during the period of the Rishonim the Maghreb was controlled by Muslim forces.

[2] There are some historical sources that indicate that R. Chushiel arrived there on his own free will around the year 1005.  It has been suggested that after the captivity and ransoming he left and then returned on his own free will.  That R. Chushiel had Italian roots is supported by an extant responsum he signed along with other rabbinic figures from Bari, Italy.

[3] One area where this had a major impact on Gemara study was the text of the Gemara.  It is theorized that due to their connection with Bavel, the North African talmudists had excellent editions of the Talmud Bavli.  Whenever the text of a passage was in question, the North African talmudists were able to send a letter to Bavel and in a relatively short interval of time receive clarification of the proper text.  The issue of the proper text of the Gemara (girsa) was a major issue in the Ashkenazic Torah centers in Northern Europe.  Lacking a direct connection with Bavel, the Ashkenazim were forced to conjecture the proper text of the Talmud.  But in North Africa, it seems, the contact with Bavel allowed the North African Talmudists to enjoy a more authoritative edition of the Talmud. 

[5] At times, R. Chananel even quotes directly from R. Hai Gaon without even mentioning his name.   

[5] Originally his commentary was only known through quotations from others, but in the 18th century the text of his commentary was included on the page of the standard Talmud on a number of Mesechtos.  

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