Judah ben Eleazar

views updated


JUDAH BEN ELEAZAR (Riba ; 17th century), Persian physician and philosopher, considered the greatest scholar to emerge from the Jewish community of Persia. His most valuable work is titled Ḥovot Yehudah ("Duties of Judah"), which was completed in 1686. He also produced works on astronomy and medicine. Ḥovot Yehudah deals with the fundamental principles of Jewish belief and philosophy. These are presented systematically, from a traditional religious-legal and a philosophical – or, as the author puts it, rational – perspective. The work consists of an introduction, four main parts, and an epilogue, which are further divided into 18 sections comprising a total of 50 chapters. Its four main parts correspond to the four principles of Jewish faith asserted by the author (as opposed to Maimonides' 13 principles of faith). Ḥovot Yehudah is written in *Judeo-Persian, apart from the epilogue, which is in Hebrew.

By virtue of his training and intellectual inclination, Riba, like *Maimonides, belonged to the school of religious scholars who chose to explain issues of belief in rational terms. His knowledge of the Torah, philosophy, and other intellectual fields of his time was comprehensive and profound. This is indicated by the large variety of texts he analyzed and expounded and by his systematic handling of a broad range of complex subjects. Thanks to his extensive, diligent study of the Persian language and literature, he had a masterful command of the language, as well as knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Thus, Riba stands among the giants of Jewish philosophy.

We have no information concerning the life and activities of the author from other sources. Since he lived before 1686, there is no doubt that he, like the rest of the Jews of *Kashan, suffered persecutions and forced conversions. Riba made use of a wide array of sources. In addition to the Bible, the Talmud, midrashic texts, and the Zohar, all of which he quoted extensively, he also used the New Testament, the Apocrypha, and the Koran. He reveals solid knowledge of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, *Avicenna, *Averroes and al-*Ghazali, paying the most attention to Aristotle's metaphysics, against which he polemicizes. However, the work in its entirety has to do with the principles of Jewish belief, as represented by Jewish thinkers, Maimonides in particular. Special attention is given to Maimonides' Guide; Shemonah Perakim ("Eight Chapters"); Perek H̩elek; and Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah in Sefer ha-Madda of the Mishneh Torah. Also much admired is Rabbi David Messer *Leon, whom Riba calls "the perfect and great rabbi, divine erudite scholar." Quotations from Leon's book, Tehillah le-David, may be found throughout the treatise. At times, Riba refutes Maimonides, especially with respect to his 13 principles of faith. He is not satisfied with the explanations of the great commentators, such as Rashi. He criticizes those who do not understand the basic issues of the Torah, but instead play with sefirot (divine emanations) and consider themselves kabbalists: "In my opinion, who is a heretic? He who has no knowledge of the rational world and the literal meaning [of the Torah] and occupies himself with the sefirot in his wish to be considered a divine mystic. (Concerning him) the Sages said: 'He lacks the outside keys but searches for the inner ones.' We might call him – and certain Ashkenazim with their convoluted treatises – a pious fool (h̩asid shoteh)" (Part i, Sec. 1/28).

In its 18 sections and epilogue, Ḥovot Yehudah discusses on one hand the accounts of Creation and the Divine Chariot, the nature of God, prophecy, human free will, knowledge, divine providence, the eternal nature of the Torah, immortality of the soul, reward and punishment, the messianic era and resurrection of the dead, and on the other hand, mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, medicine, music, logic, and rhetoric.

The last chapter of the work is a kind of short summa contra gentiles. By means of biblical exegesis, Riba attempts to show that there is no passage in the Hebrew Bible that verifies Muslim claims regarding the emergence of their Prophet. In addition, he rejects Muslim contentions that the Torah now in the hands of Jews is a forgery. However, Riba writes, he prefers not to argue with them too much, for according to their custom, anyone who does not believe as they do may be executed; he continues, "they do not hesitate to apply this practice" (ibid., 70).


A. Netzer, Duties of Judah by Rabbi Yehudah ben Elazar (1995); idem, "Redifot u-Shemadot be-Toledot Yehudei Iran ba-Me'ah ha-17," in: Pe'amim, 6 (1980), 32–56.

[Amnon Netzer (2nd ed.)]