Abraham ben David of Posquières

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ABRAHAM BEN DAVID OF POSQUIÈRES (known as Rabad , i.e., R abbi A braham B en D avid; c. 1125–1198); talmudic authority in Provence. Abraham was born in Narbonne, and died in Posquières, a small city near Nîmes famous for the yeshivah he established there. He lived during a remarkable period of remarkable development of intellectual activity in southern France. His father-in-law, Abraham b. Isaac, who headed the rabbinical court in Narbonne, exerted considerable influence on Abraham ben David, whose brilliance he fully appreciated. Abraham studied with Moses b. Joseph and *Meshullam b. Jacob of Lunel, two of the most respected and influential scholars of the time. Meshullam encouraged the methodical transmission of the philosophic, scientific, and halakhic learning of Spanish Jews to French Jewry, and his influence on Abraham in this respect was great. It also seems safe to assume that the enlightened atmosphere of his circle widened the scope of Abraham's learning so that he developed into a keen and resourceful halakhist, undisputed master in his own field, and highly knowledgeable in developments in related areas (philosophy and philology). He encouraged Judah ibn Tibbon, who had translated the first chapter of Baḥya ibn Paquda's Ḥovot ha-Levavot at the request of Meshullam of Lunel, to complete the translation. Meshullam stimulated Abraham's literary creativity by having him compose a treatise (Issur Mashehu, in: S. Assaf, Sifran shel Rishonim (Jerusalem, 1935, 185–98; M. Hershler, Jerusalem, 1963)) on an important problem of Jewish ritual law.

A mature scholar, prominent in Montpellier and Nîmes, and a man of great wealth (it has been suggested that he dealt in textiles), he settled permanently in Posquières, except for a short period (1172–73) when he fled to Narbonne and Carcassonne as a result of hostility on the part of the local feudal lord. He founded and directed a school to which advanced students from all parts of Europe flocked and he provided for all the needs of indigent students out of his own pocket. Some of his students and close followers, *Abraham b. Nathan ha-Yarḥi, Isaac ha-Kohen, *Meir b. Isaac, *Jonathan b. David ha-Kohen of Lunel, Asher b. Saul of Lunel, and his own son *Isaac the Blind (of Posquières) became distinguished rabbis and authors in the principal Jewish communities of Provence, thus extending Abraham's influence and contributing to significant literary developments at the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries. He himself asserted that his word was law in all Provence (Temim De'im (Lvov, 1812), 12a–b, no. 113). Scholars from Franco-Germany, Spain, North Africa, Italy, Palestine, and Slavic countries knew, studied, and respected him. *Naḥmanides describes his erudition and piety with great awe and Solomon b. Abraham *Adret says that Abraham revealed unfathomed depths of the law "as if from the mouth of Moses, and explained that which is difficult" (Torat ha-Bayit, Beit ha-Nashim, introduction).

Rabad's literary activity was original and many sided. His works may be classified under the headings of codes of rabbinic law, commentaries on various types of talmudic literature, responsa, homiletic discourses, and critical annotations and glosses (hassagot) on standard works of rabbinic literature. His writings are characterized by precision in textual study, persistence in tracing statements back to their original source, discovery of later interpolations, and logical analysis of problems. He was one of the most skillful practitioners of the critico-conceptual method of talmudic study – probing into the inner strata of talmudic logic, defining fundamental concepts, and formulating disparities as well as similarities among various passages in the light of conceptual analysis. As a result, abstract, complex concepts, which were discussed fragmentarily in numerous, unrelated sections of the Talmud, are for the first time defined with great vigor and precision. This critical methodology was the first clean break from the geonic method of Talmud study. By doing so, Rabad approached each rabbinic subject unaided by the wisdom of the previous generations. On the one hand, he viewed each subject as part of the greater talmudic whole; yet on the other hand, he only commented on what interested him. Thus, his commentaries may be described as annotatory rather than cursory, that is, closer to the tosafistic method of textual elucidation and analysis than the method of complete, terse textual commentary associated with Rashi or R. Hananel. Many of his theories and insights were endorsed and transmitted by subsequent generations of talmudists and incorporated into standard works of Jewish law up to the Shulḥan Arukh and its later commentaries. Indeed, his talmudic commentaries had an enormous impact on the next generation of talmudic scholars, notably *Naḥmanides and his disciple, Solomon ben Abraham *Adret. Even though they continued to quote him frequently, the scholarship and reputation of these and other scholars of the succeeding generations overshadowed Rabad's work. Rabad's talmudic commentaries firmly established his position among Jewish scholars. With the first publication of Rabad's hassagot alongside Maimonides' text of the Mishneh Torah in the early 16th century, Rabad's reputation shifted from that of commentator on the Talmud to commentator on the Mishneh Torah.

Some medieval writers, notably Ḥasdai Crescas (Or Adonai, introduction) assert that Abraham wrote a commentary on the entire Talmud and Menahem b. Solomon *Meiri described him as "one of the greatest of the commentators" (Beit ha-Beḥirah, passim). Only sections of this imposing undertaking have been preserved and only two complete commentaries on Bava Kamma (Kaidan, 1940; Jerusalem, 19632) and Avodah Zarah (New York, 1960) have been published; sizable extracts are to be found in the Shitah Mekubbeẓet of Bezalel Ashkenazi and citations from it are quoted in the writings of the rishonim. His commentary and tosafot to the first two chapters of Kiddushin have been published by Wacholder, in: huca 37 (1966), Heb. sect. 65–90.

The most important of his codes, which included Hilkhot Lulav, Ḥibbur Harsha'ot (on power of attorney), and Perush Yadayim, is the Ba'alei ha-Nefesh (first edition Venice, 1602). A complete and better edition was published by Y. Kafaḥ (1964). In seven, close-knit chapters, Abraham formulated and discussed in great detail the laws relating to women. The last chapter of the work entitled Sha'ar ha-Kedushah ("the gate of holiness") describes the moral norms and pious dispositions which enable man to achieve self-control in sexual matters and to attain purity of heart and action. The common denominator of all his codes is their preoccupation with practical matters, unlike Maimonides, whose theoretical concept of codification necessitated the inclusion of all laws, even those of no practical value. Abraham's codes are predicated on exposition and commentary and provide complete source references.

Abraham wrote commentaries on the Mishnah, which had gradually become subservient to and assimilated in the Talmud as a unit of study, with the result that as late as the 12th century, commentaries on the Mishnah were rare and fragmentary. Abraham's full-fledged commentaries on Eduyyot and Kinnim (both published in the standard editions of the Talmud), two abstruse, academic treatises, were original and also very influential. (The commentary on Tamid, ascribed to Abraham, is not his.) At the beginning of the Eduyyot commentary he himself declared: "In all these matters I have nothing to fall back upon, neither a rabbi nor a teacher. I beseech the Creator to guide me correctly in this matter." Unlike Maimonides, who strove to distill the quintessence from intricate discussions, in order to render the Mishnah an independent subject of study, Abraham was interested primarily in interpreting those obscure sections of the Mishnah which had no further explanation in the Talmud, passing over those passages satisfactorily explained in the Talmud, merely giving cross references.

His commentaries on the tannaitic Midrashim are of special historic importance, because he was probably the first medieval scholar (but see *Hillel b. Eliakim of Greece) to have written exhaustive commentaries on these texts. While his commentaries on the Mekhilta and Sifrei are quoted, only the commentary on Sifra is extant (first edition Constantinople, 1523; scientifically edited by I.H. Weiss, Vienna, 1862). The commentary, which pays considerable attention to the nature and method of the Sifra and, therefore, to problems of talmudic hermeneutics, begins with an emphatic prologue on the necessity of tradition "in order to harass the opinions of the heretics (minim) who refuse to obey and believe."

The hassagot, critical scholia, with which his name is inextricably linked, were his last works. He composed copious hassagot on the halakhot of Alfasi, on the Sefer ha-Maor of *Zerahiah b. Isaac ha-Levi, and the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. As the Hebrew term hassagah denotes, these glosses are both criticism and commentary, dissent and elaboration, stricture and supplement; they are not exclusively polemical, although the polemical emphasis varies in intensity and acuity from one to the other. The critique on Alfasi is mild and objective; that on Maimonides may be described as moderate, marred by occasional outbursts of intemperate invective; while that on Zerahiah ha-Levi is caustic and personal. Abraham began by reviewing Alfasi and taking exception to some of his halakhic interpretations and normative conclusions. In answer to his criticisms Naḥmanides wrote his Sefer ha-Zekhut. When the Sefer ha-Maor appeared, Abraham felt that Zerahiah ha-Levi had carried the criticism of Alfasi to unjustified lengths and that often Zerahiah was captious and carping for no good reason. Anticipating the more comprehensive refutation of Naḥmanides in Milḥamot, Abraham penned a sharp answer to the strictures of Zerahiah. He accused him, inter alia, of plagiarism, amateurishness, excessive reliance on Rashi and the French school, and general incompetence. The book, called Katuv Sham, was published in full for the first time in Jerusalem (1960–2). Extracts from it had been published previously in the Romm edition of the Talmud, and elsewhere. This work climaxes a lifetime process of mutual criticism and attack – the acrimonious exchange in Divrei ha-Rivot and Zerahiah's criticism of Abraham's Ba'alei ha-Nefesh and Kinnim commentary (Sela ha-Maḥaloket, latest edition, ed. Kafaḥ, 1964). Abraham's critique of Maimonides, written in cryptic and in a style often difficult to understand, became a standard companion of Maimonides' text (from the Constantinople edition, 1509). These hassagot are highly personal and unsystematic. Rabad does not comment on every aspect of each section of the entire Mishneh Torah. However, his glosses are very wide ranging, containing every conceivable form of annotation: criticism concerning interpretive matters, textual problems, local customs and the like, and many forms of commentary, listing the source, reconstructing Maimonides' explanation of a text, showing the derivative process followed by Maimonides in the formulation of a law, warding off possible criticism, and the like. Abraham claimed that Maimonides "intended to improve but did not improve, for he forsook the way of all authors and his cut and dried codification, without explanations and without references, approximated ex cathedra legislation too closely." Rabad's hassagot are not limited to points of law; he was quick to take Maimonides to task for his philosophical opinions as well. For instance, contrary to Maimonides' assertion that God is incorporeal and that to think of God as having a body makes one a heretic, Rabad claims that there "were many who were greater and better than him who followed this path due to what they saw in verses, and even more due to rabbinic homilies that confuse the mind" (see Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:7). Later generations did not view this statement as disagreeing with Maimonides, but as recognition of the need to think of God in anthropomorphic terms.

Abraham wrote many responsa, some of them printed in Tummat Yesharim (Venice, 1622). A more complete compendium was issued by Y. Kafaḥ (1964). He wrote a few homilies, as testified by many rishonim, but only his homily on Rosh Ha-Shanah has been printed (London, 1955).

One type of literature, the kabbalistic, which came into prominence during his lifetime, is not represented in his writings. It is known, however, that he exerted formative influence upon it through his children, who, having learned mystical teachings from him, became literary leaders and guides in the emergent Kabbalah. Later kabbalistic writers such as Isaac of Acre, Shem Tov b. Gaon, and Menahem Recanati claimed Abraham as one of their own, worthy of receiving special revelation.


I. Twersky, Rabad of Posquières (1962), includes complete bibliography; S. Abramson, in: Tarbiz, 36 (1967), 158–79. add. bibliography: Y. Gellman, in: New Scholasticism, 58:2 (1984), 145–69; H. Soloveitchik, in: Jewish History, 5:1 (1991), 75–124; idem, in: Studies in the History of Jewish Society in the Middles Ages and in the Modern Period (1980); J. Cohen, in: The Frank Talmage Memorial Volume, 2 (1992), 65–78; N. Samuelson, in: Kerem, Creative Explorations in Judaism, 1 (1992–93), 65–74.

[Isadore Twersky /

David Derovan (2nd ed.)]

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Abraham ben David of Posquières