Levi ben Abraham ben Ḥayyim

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LEVI BEN ABRAHAM BEN ḤAYYIM (c. 1245–c. 1315), French philosopher, whose teachings were the focus of the anti-philosophical controversy which raged among Jews in Provence and Catalonia between 1303 and 1305. Levi b. Abraham was born at Villefranche-de-Conflent. Persecuted by the opponents of philosophy, Levi was forced to wander from place to place and was poverty-stricken throughout his life. In 1276 he lived in Montpellier, in 1295, in Arles, and in 1303, in Perpignan, in the home of Samuel of Escalita. The latter, influenced by the reproaches directed against philosophy by Solomon b. Abraham *Adret during this period, and seeing a divine punishment in the death of his daughter, drove Levi out of his house. Levi then sought refuge at the home of his relative Samuel b. Reuben of Beziers, where he remained for a time. In 1314 he was in Arles, where he apparently died soon after.

Levi is the author of two works:

(1) Battei ha-Nefesh ve-ha-Leḥashim (a title derived from Isa. 3:20), an encyclopedia of medieval science and philosophy, in rhymed prose, written in Montpellier in 1276 (Paris, Ms. héb. no. 978). It is composed of ten chapters of varying length, dealing with ethics, logic, ma'aseh bereshit (see *Kabbalah), the soul, prophecy, ma'aseh merkavah (the "divine throne-chariot," see *Merkabah Mysticism), mathematics, astronomy, astrology, physics, metaphysics. I. Davidson published the first section of this work together with an anonymous commentary in Yedi'ot ha-Makhon le-Ḥeker ha-Shirah ha-Ivrit (vol. 5 (1939), 2–42), and the seventh section in Scripta Mathematica (vol. 4 (1936), 57–65).

(2) Livyat Ḥen, another encyclopedic work composed of diverse scientific treatises. Divided into six parts, the work seems to have been extant in a long and short version. Fragments of the first five parts of both the long and short versions have been preserved, and so have more lengthy fragments of the sixth section, titled "Boaz." Of the short version the following sections have been preserved: a section on astronomy consisting of 49 chapters (Paris, Ms. héb. no. 1047, fols. 174v–220v), a section on the purpose of metaphysics (Oxford, Ms. Mich. no. 519, fols. 1–17), and fragments of the sixth section, "Boaz" (ibid., fols. 1–127v). Of the long version a section on astrology has been preserved, corresponding to chapter 40 of the short version on astronomy (Paris, Ms. héb. no. 1066, fols. 1–106v), a section on metaphysics (ibid., no. 1050, fols. 60–65), as well as fragments of the sixth section (de' Rossi, Ms. no. 1346, fols. 1–194; Vatican, Ms. héb. 192, fols. 1–147; no. 298, fols. 27–37v).

The fragments of the sixth section, which are lengthier than those of the rest of the work, provide a fairly detailed picture of Levi's views. This section deals with the Bible, the mysteries of faith, ma'aseh bereshit, ma'aseh merkavah, and aggadah. Adopting the methodology of *Maimonides, Levi uses allegorical exegesis extensively in his attempt to reconcile various biblical and talmudic passages with philosophical doctrines. For example, he interpreted the figures of Abraham and Sarah as representatives of form and matter, and the flood as a psychological upheaval that takes place in the soul of man. It was mainly for his allegorical exposition that Levi was criticized. His contemporaries claimed that in interpreting the Bible allegorically he was negating the literal meaning of the Torah. Levi himself protested that he was not negating the literal meaning but finding additional levels of meaning in the text. In Livyat Ḥen one finds many of the allegorical interpretations that Abba Mari *Astruc attacked in his Minḥat Kena'ot (1838), but actually Levi's interpretations are no more extreme than those found in the Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides, Ma'amar Yikkavu ha-Mayim by Samuel ibn *Tibbon, or Malmad ha-Talmidim by Jacob b. Abba Mari *Anatoli.

Like most of the medieval philosophers after Maimonides, Levi agrees with *Averroes on many points, going so far as to accept even his belief in the eternity of the world. Like Maimonides, Levi maintains that the role of the revealed law is to help men acquire moral virtues and to ensure social harmony. He also believes that man's happiness is dependent on the level of his intellectual development, as is the degree of divine *providence accorded him. Levi bases his theory of prophecy on that of Maimonides, but follows Abraham *Ibn Ezra in his interpretation of miracles. Like Ibn Ezra, he believes in astrology, although he does not utilize it as much in the long version as in the short version of the work.

While Levi was not an original thinker, his writings are particularly representative of the philosophy of his time. Examination of his philosophical doctrines gives no clue as to why he was the object of such violent opposition, other than the fact that he supported, both halakhically and theologically, the use of astral magic, which was one of the causes of the controversy over philosophy.

Perhaps it was the encyclopedic nature of his work that seemed so particularly dangerous. It also appears that in his oral instruction Levi was less careful than other philosophers.


Guttmann, Philosophies, 212, 222; Halkin, in: paajr, 34 (1966), 65–76; Renan, Rabbins, 628–74; I. Davidson, in: rej, 105 (1940), 80–94; C. Sirat, ibid., 122 (1963), 167–77; Baeck, in: mgwj, 44 (1900), 24–41, 59–71, 156–67, 337–44, 417–23. add. bibliography: H. Kreisel, H. (ed.), Livyat Ḥenvi:3 – On Creation (1994); D. Schwartz, "Changing Fronts toward Science in the Medieval Debates over Philosophy," in: Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 7 (1997), 61–82; G. Freudenthal, "Sur la partie astronomique du Liwyat Hen de Levi ben Abraham ben Hayyim," rej, 148 (1989), 103–12; W.Z. Harvey, "Levi ben Abraham of Villefranche's Controversial Encyclopedia," in: S. Harvey (ed.), The Medieval Hebrew Encyclopedias of Science and Philosophy (2000), 171–88; D. Schwartz, Astral Magic in Medieval Jewish Thought (Heb., 1999), 245–58;.

[Colette Sirat /

Dov Schwartz (2nd ed.)]

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