Yaʿaqov Ben Asher

views updated


YAʿAQOV BEN ASHER (c. 12701343), Hispano-Jewish codifier. Yaʿaqov was a son of the great German halakhist Asher ben Yeiʾel, who settled with his family in Toledo in 1303. Yaʿaqov ben Asher never accepted rabbinical office and at times suffered economic adversity, but he continued his father's lifeworkthe revival of Talmudic studies in Castile and the fusion of Franco-German and Spanish halakhah.

Yaʿaqov's magnum opus was his code, the Arbaʿah urim (lit., "four rows"; see Ex. 28:17). It consists of four books: Ora ayyim, on liturgy and holidays; Yoreh deʿah, on "the prohibited and permitted" and other topics, including mourning, charity, education, and filial piety; Even ha-ʿezer, on family law; and oshen mishpa, on civil law. Yaʿaqov sought to attain coherence and order in Jewish law, but in a manner less radically reductive and homogenizing than that of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah a century and a half earlier. Instead of excising all disagreement and discussion, as Maimonides had done, Yaʿaqov skillfully integrated into his code brief discussions of legal cruxes and of the divergent views of major authorities who represented different schools, generally concluding with his father's view.

The language of the urim is clear and simple. Unlike Mishneh Torah, its arrangement aims at functionality rather than conceptual categorization. This practical orientation is evident also in its omission of all laws not applicable since the destruction of the Temple. Nor does the urim attempt the grand synthesis of law and theology to which Mishneh Torah aspires. It does, however, contain many homiletical and hortatory passages (especially in the section prologues) based on classical aggadah and the author's own pure and simple piety. Only rarely are there reflections of the Ashkenazic Hasidism of Yaʿaqov's German forebears and of his opposition to philosophical rationalism. The spirituality underlying Yaʿaqov's piety occasionally breaks through the surface, as in his recommendation, inserted matter-of-factly in "the laws of prayer," that one emulate the "men of piety and good deeds [who] would so meditate and concentrate in prayer, that they achieved a stripping away of corporeality and an intensification of the rational soul, which brought them close to the level of prophecy."

The urim became an immensely popular work among both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews and occasioned many commentaries. It was the second Hebrew book published (Piove di Sacco, 1475) and in the sixteenth century served as the basis for Yosef Karo's classic code, the Shulan ʽarukh.

Yaʿaqov also composed a commentary on the Torah (1806) that clearly summarizes the brilliant but difficult thirteenth-century Pentateuch commentary of Moses Nahmanides, without the latter's qabbalistic exegesis. To each section, Yaʿaqov prefaced homiletical interpretations based on the numerical value of letters (gemariyyah) and the orthographic peculiarities of the Masoretic text. Ironically, these interpretations, mentioned as a relatively inconsequential afterthought in Yaʿa-qov's introduction, became extremely popular, eclipsing the main body of the commentary.


Abrahams, Israel, ed. and trans. Hebrew Ethical Wills (1926). Reprint, with a foreword by Judah Goldin, Philadelphia, 1976. Includes the testament of Yaʿaqov to his children (pp. 202205) as well as testaments of Yaʿaqov's brother and father.

Elon, Menachem. Ha-mishpa haʿIvri, vol. 3. 2d ed. Jerusalem, 1973. A good description of the urim as a code, pp. 10581082.

Freimann, Alfred. "Die Ascheriden, 12671391." Jahrbuch der jüdisch-literarischen Gesellschaft 13 (1920): 142254. Still the basic study of Yaʿaqov and his family.

Twersky, Isadore. "The Shulan ʿAruk: Enduring Code of Jewish Law." Judaism 16 (1967): 141158. Reprinted in The Jewish Expression, edited by Judah Goldin (New York, 1970), pp. 322343. Contains valuable comments on the urim and its use by Yosef Karo.

Urbach, E. E. "Darkhei pesiqah: Sefer ha-urim." In American Academy for Jewish Research Jubilee Volume, edited by Salo W. Baron and Isaac E. Barzilay, vol. 2, pp. 114 (Hebrew section). Jerusalem, 1980. Explores, among other things, the question of structural parallels between the urim and Roman and Spanish law codes.

New Sources

Amrán, Rica. "Un estudiante ruso en la Yesiba de Toledo en tiempos de Asher ben Yehiel, ha-Rosh." Anuario de Estudios Medievales 20 (1990): 913.

Ta-Shma, Israel Moses. "Between East and West: Rabbi Asher b. Yehiʿel and His Son Rabbi Yaʿakov." In Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, vol. 3, edited by Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris, pp. 179196. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Bernard Septimus (1987)

Revised Bibliography