Ḥefeẓ ben Yaẓli'aḥ

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ḤEFEẒ BEN YAẒLI'AḤ (ha-Ashuri , "the Assyrian"; probably second half of 10th century), Babylonian talmudic scholar. Few personal details are known about him save that he was a native of Mosul, was blind, and bore the identical titles of alluf and resh kallah, evidence of his high standing in the Babylonian academies. The claim that Ḥefeẓ lived in Kairouan, North Africa, has not been substantiated. The exact dates of his activity are unknown, but it is clear he was already recognized as a scholar at the beginning of the 11th century. Jonah *Ibn Janaḥ, for one, held him in great esteem. Ḥefeẓ was renowned among the scholars of Spain and Egypt as a grammarian and talmudic scholar, and is cited by such luminaries as *Alfasi, *Maimonides, *Judah b. Barzillai, *Baḥya ibn Pakuda, *Nathan b. Jehiel, and the lexicographers, Salomon ibn *Parḥon and Judah *Ibn Balaam. Maimonides specifically acknowledges that he was guided by him in his commentary on the Mishnah (Maimonides' Letters, ed. by Baneth (1944), 78). Because he wrote in Arabic, Ḥefeẓ's teachings were not known to French and German scholars.

His most important work is his Sefer ha-Mitzvot ("Book of Commandments"), probably the first comprehensive book of laws in Hebrew literature, including laws which no longer had practical application. Only fragments of this book are extant (see bibliography). Unlike the earlier *Halakhot Gedolot which follows the order of the Talmud, his book was arranged according to an inner logical system. His numeration of the precepts differed too from that of the Halakhot Gedolot. His method was to embark upon an extensive interpretation of each precept as treated in talmudic literature, including in the process many quotations from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and the Tosefta with important variant readings, reflecting his closeness to the geonic sources. Statements of *Samuel b. Hophni are to be found in the book, though lack of exact chronological data leaves open the question as to who borrowed from whom. A work attributed to Ḥefeẓ is a lexicon of the Halakhot Gedolot (mentioned in lists of books from the *Genizah), a few quotations of which are to be found in the works of the rishonim.

French and German scholars alone refer to a certain Sefer Ḥefeẓ. It is first mentioned by *Eliezer b. Nathan, and later by his pupils and followers: *Eliezer b. Joel ha-Levi, *Isaac b. Abba Mari in his Ittur, *Isaac b. Moses of Vienna in his Or Zaru'a, *Mordecai b. Hillel in his Sefer Mordekhai, and others. All that is known of it is that it was a book of decisions written in Hebrew and including the orders Nashim, Nezikin, and Mo'ed. The great similarity – mostly as a result of copying – between this Sefer Ḥefeẓ and the anonymous Metivot, one of *Alfasi's sources, led various scholars to regard the Sefer Ḥefeẓ as identical with the book of Ḥefeẓ b. Yaẓli'aḥ. Subsequent study has shown, however, that they have nothing in common but the title. Fragments of the anonymous book have been collected by B.M. Lewin (see bibliography).


Aptowitzer, in: Tarbiz, 4 (1932/33), 127–52; B. Lewin (ed.), Sefer Metivot…ve-Sefer Hefez (1933), i–xlvi; Assaf, in ks, 11 (1935), 161–6; Assaf, Ge'onim, 206f.; M. Zucker, in: paajr, 29 (1961), 1–68 (Heb. section; idem, in: Hadoar, 42 (1962/63), 385–8.

[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]