Duran, Simeon ben Ẓemaḥ

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DURAN, SIMEON BEN ẒEMAḤ (R aSHB a , Hebrew acronym of R abbi Sh imon b en emaḥ; 1361–1444), rabbinic authority, philosopher, and scientist. He was born in Majorca to R. Ẓemaḥ Astruc Duran. In his youth Simeon studied in Palma (Majorca) at the yeshivah of Ephraim Vidal, who was martyred in the year 1391, and in Aragon at that of Jonah *Desmaestre, whose daughter he later married. Educated in accordance with the old Spanish method, he acquired a thorough knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, science, logic, and particularly medicine, which was to become his profession. After his return to Majorca, Simeon practiced as a physician and surgeon in Palma, and he seems to have been in comfortable circumstances. He was also highly esteemed as a rabbinic scholar and even his teacher Ephraim Vidal sought his advice. His prestige there can be gauged from the fact that 44 years after he had left the island he addressed a letter to the Jews of the island reproaching them for negligence in some religious practices and admonishing them to change their way of life.

After the massacre of 1391 in which he lost all of his fortune, Simeon left Majorca for Algiers together with his father and family. Jews from other parts of Spain also immigrated to North Africa, and the arrival of the immigrants had a beneficial effect upon the native Jews there. It caused a revival of knowledge and scholarship, which had been neglected and was in a state of great decline. Spanish rabbis now became religious leaders of African communities. In Algiers the aged *Isaac bar Sheshet was appointed chief rabbi and was also nominated a supreme judge of the Jews by the king. Simeon seems to have joined his bet din. Having lost all his fortune and being unable to earn his livelihood from his medical profession, since the native population resorted to superstitious practices rather than to medical help, he was forced to accept a salaried office of rabbi. As Maimonides had prohibited the acceptance of a salary for a rabbinical office, and since in Algiers only Maimonides' decisions were regarded as authoritative, Simeon later found it necessary to justify his action.

The nature of Simeon's official activity during the lifetime of Isaac b. Sheshet can be seen from the following examples. In 1394 a commission to deal with matrimonial laws was appointed, consisting of Bar Sheshet, Isaac *Bonastruc, a rabbi in Algiers, and Simeon, who was asked by the other members to draft the ordinances; his draft was accepted in its entirety. Originally intended for the Spanish immigrants, the ordinances were soon adopted by some of the native Jews as well and were authoritative for African Jewry for centuries. A ban against informers issued about that time was also signed by Bar Sheshet, Bonastruc, and Simeon. From the very fact that Simeon signed third, it is obvious that he was not assistant chief rabbi as some scholars believe (at least not at that time).

Much has been written about the relationship between Bar Sheshet and Simeon. On the one hand Simeon respected the older rabbi, but on the other hand the latter bitterly complained of Simeon, who himself also confesses "I was childish and behaved impudently toward a rabbi who was very old and distinguished in learning" (Tashbeẓ, 1, no. 58). In view of this there can be no doubt that a certain tension had existed between the rabbis, the active party being Simeon. The reason for this animosity is not quite certain; it may have been the appointment of the chief rabbi which annoyed Simeon, who although much younger, regarded himself no less worthy of the post owing to his secular and rabbinical knowledge. It seems that Isaac bar Sheshet, being good-natured and peace-loving, succeeded in the course of time in dispelling the greater part of the unfriendly atmosphere. Soon after Bar Sheshet's appointment as judge by the king, Simeon wrote a responsum in which he tried to prove that such an appointment was not permitted, but he did not publish it (ibid., 162). Bar Sheshet often consulted Simeon on various matters, asking him to deal with them and to write responsa. After Isaac bar Sheshet's death (1408) Simeon was appointed chief rabbi (he himself says dayyan) with the request that his appointment not be confirmed by the king. (According to the report of the Algerian rabbis in the introduction to Tashbeẓ, Simeon's appointment already took place during the older man's lifetime.) During his period of office Simeon was very active. While he had to fight some practices not in accordance with Jewish religion current among the native Jews, he had to raise his voice against his own countrymen who criticized the doctrines of terefah and were lax in the observance of some commandments. As judge, Simeon was regarded as an undisputed authority, and interesting facts have become known of his legal proceedings. From various communities, questions were sent to him about religious and legal matters. He had to deal with the problem of the Marranos from the religious and legal points of view. Of his pupils only Abraham ha-Kohen Sholal is known by name, but he may have been his pupil when he was still in Majorca.

Simeon was against adopting stringent practices (ḥumrot) which had no foundation in the Talmud; he said that one should be stringent with oneself, but lenient with others. There were some contradictions in him, however, which can also be found among other Spanish scholars. On the one hand he was meek, but on the other he praised himself for his wisdom. Although he greatly admired Maimonides and followed his philosophical views, he believed in astrology which Maimonides so strongly opposed, and he quoted Abraham *Ibn Ezra in connection with astrology, calling him "he-Ḥasid."

A characteristic feature of the method employed in his decisions as posek is given by Simeon himself: "In reaching my decisions I do not grope like the blind grope along the wall, for I give a decision only after studying the case carefully. I have never given a decision which I later retracted" (Tashbeẓ, pt. 3, no. 189). His decisions were indeed always correct; they exhausted all existing sources and discussed all opinions, leaving no possibility of controverting them. His decisions became authoritative in North Africa (see introduction to Tashbeẓ). The takkanot he drafted were in vogue among the Jews in North Africa for centuries, and his responsa were a guide to later posekim who frequently quote them (e.g., Joseph *Caro, Beit Yosefeh 119, 122, 126, 130, 134, 140, 141, 143; they became known to Caro through Jacob *Berab; see introduction to Tashbeẓ). Ḥayyim *Benveniste established the principle that in cases in which Simeon's decisions contradict those of Solomon b. Abraham *Adret, the decision is according to the former (Keneset ha-Gedolah, Ḥm 386). Preference should also be given to Simeon when he is contradicted by Israel *Isserlein.


As in his halakhic decisions, Simeon also respected the opinions of Maimonides in the area of philosophy, but often differed with him, even on important issues. He accepted Maimonides' naturalistic views on prophecy but with added emphasis on the role of divine grace. Like Ḥasdai *Crescas, he disagrees with Maimonides' theory that eternal bliss depends on how much knowledge one has acquired. He accepts the Aristotelian conception of the soul, but adds to it another, immaterial part of man, his neshamah, which is derived from God and bears the intellective faculty, and which is eternal. Thus eternal bliss is not proportioned only according to one's acquired intellect, as Maimonides claimed, but human felicity, both in this world and the next, depends on one's observance of the mitzvot, as Naḥmanides had shown. Further, Simeon disagrees with Maimonides' theory that superior intellect determines the amount of divine providence to which one is subject. According to Simeon, divine providence is contingent upon one's performance of God's commandments. Simeon's most important contribution (later repeated by Joseph *Albo) was his fixing the boundaries of philosophical speculation in order to safeguard the principles of traditional Judaism. Thus he reduced the fundamental dogmas of Judaism to three, which, according to him, must be accepted by everyone: the existence of God, revelation, and divine retribution. In doing so, he was not disagreeing with Maimonides but only commenting on Maimonides' system of 13 principles of faith. He insisted that "Every Jew must believe that the Holy Scriptures, and in particular the Torah, come from God and he must accept their contents as the absolute truth" (Ohev Mishpat, In-trod.). Although, as has been mentioned, Simeon believed in astrology (Magen Avot, 4:21), he defined himself primarily as a disciple of the "masters of the truth," the kabbalists (Ohev Mishpat, Introd. to ch. 19), whose doctrines he often quoted in his works.

Among Simeon's writings as an exegete were a commentary on Job and glosses on Levi b. Gershom's commentary on the Bible (see list of his works). Only the former has been preserved, and shows that he was an adherent of the peshat ("simple meaning") and strongly opposed allegories such as those developed in the school of southern France in the 13th century. He often quoted Targum, *Saadiah Gaon, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Naḥmanides, and Levi b. Gershom. When citing the Zohar he generally added "by R. *Simeon b. Yoḥai." He adopted some doctrines from the Kabbalah (e.g., transmigration of the soul, Magen Avot, 88a). In his responsa he quotes and uses gematriot, notarica (see *Notarikon), and letter mysticism. Sometimes he says (Tashbeẓ, 3 no. 54): "I can only explain what I have been permitted" and warns "You should give only a plain interpretation and consider what is permitted."

Simeon's philosophy is included mainly in his Magen Avot. However, his commentary on Job also contains several of his philosophic teachings. In it he refers to many philosophic sources, constructs his exposition lucidly, and takes a clear position on the philosophical problems which he treats. His philosophical ideas and writings did not have much influence on subsequent generations, except for Joseph *Albo, who in turn did make a significant impact on later philosophers.

As an apologist, Simeon deals with the *Karaites when seeking to prove the divine origin of the *Oral Law. He shows how important the Oral Law is for understanding Torah and fulfilling the commandments and states that many actions of Jewish leaders and institutions can only be explained as being based on oral tradition. He then attacks the doctrines of the Karaites (e.g., their explanation of Ex. 16:29 which contradicts Isa. 66:23). Simeon was very well acquainted with Christian literature (it has to be studied, he says, in order to be refuted). He had a dispute with a Christian theologian (Keshet u-Magen, 14a) who had to admit that Simeon was right. He quotes Saadiah Gaon, *Judah Halevi (Kuzari), the disputation of *Jehiel b. Joseph of Paris, and Naḥmanides. It is doubtful, however, whether he used Ḥasdai Crescas' Bittul Ikkarei ha-Noẓerim and the work of Profiat *Duran, since they are never mentioned. He first refutes the attacks of the Christians and then counterattacks. The Christians, he says, admit that the Torah is of divine origin, but maintain that it is superseded by the Gospels. He shows that Jesus and his disciples strictly observed the Law and that Jesus declared that he had come not to destroy the Law or the teaching of the prophets but to fulfill them. His death was not due to his negligence of the Law but to his assertion that he was "the son of God and Messiah" (Keshet u-Magen, 2b). Simeon points out the various contradictions regarding the origin of Jesus, his claim to be the Messiah (refuted by the fact that the criteria of the Messianic age had still not occurred), and the assertion that the Torah had been superseded by the Gospels, since the Torah, being of divine origin, is unchangeable. He draws attention to the many mistakes and forgeries contained in Jerome's Bible translation. He also enumerates 21 misquotations from the Bible by Jesus and his disciples. Simeon tries to prove that the Koran cannot be of divine origin owing to the great number of contradictions found in it (e.g., in regard to free will), to its many unintelligible passages, and to its sensual views on the world to come. What is good in it had been borrowed from the Midrash. Regarding Islam as a whole, Simeon did not consider Islam as idolatrous, however, he did consider the pilgrimage to Mecca as an idolatrous practice.

Simeon was also active as a poet and composed many piyyutim, kinot, seliḥot, and teḥinnot, some of which have been printed (see below). He was a prolific writer, and there is no subject with which he did not deal. His Magen Avot is more than a philosophical treatise. It covers human and animal physiology and pathology, psychology, science, phonology, etc., and has the character of an encyclopedic work. Perhaps the intention of its author was to write a book which should serve as a source of knowledge and information particularly for the Jews of North Africa. His responsa not only treat religious and legal problems, but also deal with grammar, philology, exegesis, literary history, philosophy, Kabbalah, mathematics, and astronomy.

The following list of his writings is given in the same order as mentioned by the author in Tashbeẓ, end of pts. 2 and 3: (1) Perush Hilkhot Berakhot le-ha-Rif, commentary on Alfasi's laws on Berakhot; (2) Piskei Massekhet Niddah, decisions on the tractate Niddah; (3) Sefer ha-Hashgaḥah, called Ohev Mishpat, commentary on Job, printed together with Sefer Mishpat Ẓedek by R. Obadiah *Sforno (Venice, 1589); (4) Zohar ha-Raki'a, commentary on Solomon ibn Gabirol's azharot (Constantinople, 1515); (5) Tashbeẓ (תשב״ץ, abbreviation of Teshuvot Shimon ben Ẓemaḥ), responsa in three parts (the fourth part is called Ḥut ha-Meshullash, containing responsa of three rabbis of North Africa, including Simeon's descendant Solomon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran; Amsterdam, 1738–41); (6) Magen Avot, four parts, philosophical work; the first three parts, without the fourth chapter of the second part (Leghorn, 1785); the fourth part is (7) Magen Avot, a commentary on the tractate Avot (ibid., 1763); (8) Keshet u-Magen (fourth chapter of the second part of Magen Avot (see above no. 6)), polemics against Christianity and Islam, printed together with Milḥemet Mitzvah of his son Solomon (ibid., c. 1750); the sections dealing with Christianity and Islam were published separately; (9) Perush Massekhet Eduyyot, commentary on Eduyyot mentioned by Simeon in his list; (10) Ḥiddushei ha-RaSHBaẒ, novellae on Niddah, Rosh ha-Shanah, and Kinnim (ibid., 1745); the novellae on Kinnim were also printed with those of Solomon b. Abraham Adret on Niddah (Metz, 1770); (11) Perush Keẓat Piyyutim, commentaries on various poems, as well as poems composed by Simeon: (a) a piyyut by Isaac *Ibn Ghayyat for the Day of Atonement with Simeon's commentary appeared in B. Goldberg's Ḥofes Matmonim (Berlin, 1845, pp. 85ff.); (b) a commentary on the Hoshanot (Ferrara, 1553); (c) an elegy on the destruction of the Temple appeared with Profiat Duran's letter Al Tehi ka-Avotekha (Constantinople, c. 1575–78); (d) an elegy on the persecution in Spain was printed in Magen Avot (Leipzig, 1855); (e) some piyyutim published by I. Marʿeli appeared in Kobez al Jad, 7 (1896–97) under the title Ẓafenat Pa'ne'ah (see also A. Gavison, Omer ha-Shikhhah (Leghorn, 1748, 125); (12) Or ha-Ḥayyim, polemics against Ḥasdai Crescas (mentioned by Simeon in his list); (13) Livyat Ḥen, glosses on the commentary of Levi b. Gershom and four discourses against Ḥasdai Crescas mentioned by Simeon in his list; (14) Yavin Shemu'ah on Hilkhot Sheḥitah u-Vedikah, on the laws of slaughtering and porging; (15) Ma'amar Ḥameẓ, commentary on the Haggadah; (16) Tiferet Yisrael, on the calendar; (17) Perush Eizehu Mekoman, commentary on Mishnah Zevaḥim ch. 5, and commentary on the Baraita of R. Ishmael in the beginning of Sifra. Nos. (14), (15), (16), and (17) were published together with (18) Tikkun Soferim of his son Solomon (Leghorn, 1744); (19) also appeared in the Roedelheim Haggadah edition of 1882; novellae on Bava Meẓia, quoted in Shitah Mekubbeẓet of Bezalel *Ashkenazi; (20) Sefer ha-Minhagim, on customs, in the responsa of Abraham Tawwah in Tashbeẓ, pt. 4 no. 32; (21) Sefer Tikkun ha-Ḥazzanim (ibid., no. 31); (22) commentaries on the ketubbah and get ("divorce document") and regulations about divorce and ḥaliẓah (Constantinople, 1516; cf. also Tashbeẓ, pt 3 no. 301); (23) Takkanot, see Tashbeẓ, pt. 2 no. 292.


Michael, Or, 601–5; Weiss, Dor, 5 (1904), 187–98; Graetz, Hist, 4 (19492), index; E. Atlas, in: Ha-Kerem, 1 (1887), 1–26; H. Jaulus, in: mgwj, 23 (1874), 241–59; 24 (1875), 160–78; D. Kaufmann, ibid., 41 (1897), 660–6; J. Guttmann, ibid., 52 (1908), 641–72; 53 (1909), 46–79; I. Epstein, The Responsa of Rabbi Simon b. Ẓemaḥ Duran (1930); Davidson, Oẓar, 4 (1933), 487; A.M. Hershman, Rabbi Isaac b. Sheshet Perfet and his Times (1943); Guttmann, Philosophies, 242ff.; M.M. Kasher and J.B. Mandelbaum, Sarei ha-Elef (1959), index; Hirschberg, Afrikah, index. add. bibliography: M. Shapiro, in: Judaism, 42:3 (1993), 332–43; M.M. Kellner, in: paajr, 48 (1981), 231–65; J.D. Bleich, in: jqr, 69:4 (1979), 208–25; N. Arieli, "Mishnato ha-Filosofit shel Rabbi Shimon ben Zemach Duran," dissertation, Hebrew University (1976).

[Hirsch Jacob Zimmels]