Meiri, Menahem ben Solomon
MEIRI, MENAHEM BEN SOLOMON
MEIRI, MENAHEM BEN SOLOMON (1249–1316), Provençal scholar and commentator of the Talmud. Meiri was born in Perpignan where he spent his whole life. His family, regarded as one of the most distinguished in Provence, originated from Carcassonne and Narbonne. Few biographical details are known of Meiri. In his youth he was orphaned of his father, and his children were taken captive while he was still young (Introduction to Kiryat Sefer), but no details of this personal tragedy are known. Meiri's principal teacher was *Reuben b. Ḥayyim. His reference to *Jonah Gerondi as "my teacher" does not necessarily mean that he studied under him; it may merely mean that he studied his works. Among the contemporary scholars with whom he maintained close ties was Solomon b. Abraham *Adret; they exchanged many responsa and Adret's teachings assisted him in the writing of his monumental work. Meiri was one of the participants in Adret's polemic against Maimonides which ended in Adret's excommunicating any person who read philosophical works in his youth. In a letter to Abba Mari b. Moses Joseph, who handled the entire affair and collected the relevant correspondence, Meiri disassociated himself from the attitude of Adret and his colleagues, upholding freedom of thought for the scholars of each country, and freedom from intervention by outside scholars. Extracts from Meiri's letter (republished by D. Kaufmann along with the reply by Joseph b. Simeon in the name of Abba Mari under the title Ḥoshen Mishpat in the Jubelschrift… L. Zunz, 1884; Heb. sec. 142–74), reveal his great interest in philosophy and other secular sciences, and reflect his pride in the local scholars who had acquired proficiency in them.
Meiri occupies a central position in the sphere of the talmudic creativity of Provence, not only due to his extraordinary literary fecundity and the comprehensive scope of his works, but also because he summarizes the teachings of his predecessors during the previous three centuries. In effect he puts the seal upon the literary efforts in this area of Jewish culture. His literary activity covered halakhic rulings, talmudic exposition, biblical exegesis, customs, ethics, and philosophy. The vast majority of Meiri's works remained in manuscript until very recently, probably on account of their exceptional length, which made it practically impossible to copy them in full. A small number of his books were published in the second half of the 18th century and the majority of them – from the beginning of the 20th century up to the present day. A great contribution to this project was by A. *Sofer (Schreiber). An exception is his commentary to the Book of Proverbs which was first published in Portugal in 1492, and then included in the Kehillot Moshe edition of Mikra'ot Gedolot (Amsterdam, 1724).
Meiri's chief work is the gigantic Beit ha-Beḥirah on the Talmud, in which he was engaged from 1287 to 1300. In it he summarizes the subject matter of the Talmud, giving both the meaning and the halakhah derived from it. It follows the order of the Mishnah. The work covers the orders of Mo'ed, Nashim, and Nizikin, and the tractates, Berakhot, Ḥallah, Ḥullin, Niddah, Tamid, Middot, and Mikva'ot. Beit ha-Beḥirah has been republished almost in its entirety in recent years from a single complete manuscript (Parma). Of particular interest is the introduction to his commentary on Avot, in which he gives the names of all the people who form the chain of tradition of Torah study from Moses to his own time. It contains valuable material for the knowledge of the history of Torah study in Spain and Provence, and was copied out in full and completed (updated) to his own time by Isaac *Lattes in his Sha'arei Ẓiyyon (ed. by S. Buber, 1885). In 1995, the introduction to Avot was updated from manuscript and published with the title, Seder ha-Kabbalah. This edition includes the commentary of Ḥayyim Falagi.
Meiri follows an original method of exposition. He develops his theme from its origin and for this reason he assigns a separate section to the Mishnah and explains it before turning to the later development and discussions in the later literature. Each tractate and its individual chapters are preceded by a short preface outlining the subject in general terms. The discussion begins with a presentation of the fundamental principles involved and proceeds with an explanation of the opinions of each of the amoraim. The author in conclusion sums up and collates these opinions, giving the relevant halakhah as he sees it. An abundance of comments handed down by German, Provençal, and Spanish scholars with their different interpretations are incorporated, but each one is given separately to prevent confusion on the part of the reader. Meiri was one of the few rabbis of his time to make extensive use of the Jerusalem Talmud in order to clarify the parallel discussions in the Babylonian Talmud, and his works are therefore of added importance for research on the Jerusalem Talmud and its variant readings. Meiri's style contributes much to the lucidity of his presentation. His Hebrew is accurate, precise, and simple. In addition, he succeeded in finding the golden mean between the generally contradictory aims of expository comprehensiveness and halakhic definitiveness. These features endeared the Beit ha-Beḥirah to scholars and its volumes are now repeatedly republished in spite of their great length.
Meiri adopted the unusual practice of designating his predecessors by epithet rather than by name, e.g., "the greatest of authors" (Maimonides), "the greatest of posekim" (Alfasi), "the early scholars of Narbonne," "the former scholars of Catalonia," and "the great scholars of Provence." As a result it is difficult now to determine to whom he is referring, especially as he often employs the same epithet for many scholars who, in his opinion, belong to the same "genre." Contrary to the common conception of the Meiri's commentary as purely anthological, similar to the later work Shitah Mekubbeẓet by Bezalel Ashkenazi, the Meiri quotes only those opinions that are germane to the discussions, either to refute them or to bolster his own ideas. His admirable style makes it impossible to detect the verbatim quotations which no doubt he gives from the sources, since it became one harmonious whole. He employed this method only in Beit ha-Beḥirah.
In addition to Beit ha-Beḥirah, Meiri wrote commentaries on the Talmud which were expository rather than halakhic in orientation. Although the manuscripts in this group of a number of tractates are still extant, none has been published, except for the commentary to Avot and the Beit ha-Beḥirah to the tractate Beẓah (ed. by I.S. Lang and K. Schlesinger, 1956), which apparently belong to this group.
Meiri wrote several other important works. His first, written in his youth, was Ḥibbur ha-Teshuvah devoted entirely to ethics and repentance. It clearly reveals the influence of the Malmad ha-Talmidim of Jacob *Anatoli, the first Provençal scholar to stimulate interest in the meaning of the precepts as distinct from their observance. It may be assumed that toward the end of his life Meiri revised the work, which in its present form, bears the character of a well constructed sermon book. Extracts from it were published in various places; it was published in its entirety for the first time in 1950.
Meiri's commentary to Proverbs, and even more, his commentary to Psalms (1936), reveals all his exegetical and stylistic characteristics as well as his love for explicit meaning, peshat. In them he draws upon the Midrashim and the accepted ethical and wisdom literature of the Middle Ages, such as *Ben ha-Melekh ve-ha-Nazir and Muserei ha-Filosofim, and also makes frequent use of the works of the great grammarians, such as Abraham *Ibn Ezra, Jonah *Ibn Janaḥ, and the *Kimḥi family. Corrections to the text of the commentary to Psalms were published in Kobez al Jad, New Series, 4 (1946), 229–40. Another of his works, Kiryat Sefer (1863–81), contains the laws of writing the *Sefer Torah, including lists of those words written plene and those written defectively, and of the "open" and "closed" sections of the Torah. Kiryat Sefer, composed in 1306, was considered for many years as one of the three basic works on the laws of writing a Sefer Torah – all the great posekim and masoretes making use of it. Kiryat Sefer was based upon Provençal and Spanish traditions as well as upon a copy of a Sefer Torah written by Meir *Abulafia for his own use. However, 150 years after Meiri's death, more and more of Abulafia's manuscripts of Masoret Seyag la-Torah were circulated, which did not correspond with the Sefer Torah Meirihad written and as a result the reliability of Kiryat Sefer began to be called into question. Meiri wrote Magen Avot (ed. by I. Last, 1909) to uphold the customs of Provence in general and Perpignan in particular, against those of Spain, particularly Gerona, held by *Naḥmanides and brought by his disciples to Provence after its annexation to Spain during the reign of John i (1213–76). In its 24 chapters, each devoted to the discussion of a different custom, Meiri asserts the value and superiority of these local traditions as against the great authority of Naḥmanides.
The Meiri subscribed to the Maimonidean philosophical tradition that views intellectual achievement as the highest human goal. The pinnacle of this achievement is the ability to discriminate between truth and falsehood. The intellectual understanding must be coupled with a religious sense of ultimate redemption. The most fundamental religious concepts – fear of God, love of God and devekut, cleaving to Him – are all inexorably linked to the processes of awareness and understanding. In his commentary to Proverbs, the Meiri gives expression to just those ideas (Meshi Zahav edition, Jerusalem, 1969, p.25). The Maimonidean tradition greatly influenced other aspects of the Meiri's thought, including the nature of God and of the World to Come.
The Meiri rejected the opinion of many of the disciples of Maimonides, who felt that the publication of his Mishneh Torah made Talmud study superfluous. He viewed Talmud study as an integral aspect of Jewish religious study. This is evidenced by his monumental commentary on the Talmud. He did agree, though, that the essence of Talmud study was to derive applicable Jewish law. Nevertheless, the Meiri was one of a small group of medieval sages who dealt extensively with the non-legal, aggadic portions of the Talmud. Here, too, the Meiri's explanations were rational and logical, just like his halakhic discussions.
Modern scholars disagree as to the significance of the Meiri's attitude towards non-Jews that differed from almost all other medieval sages. E.E. Urbach argues that the limited legal application made by the Meiri limits the idea's significance (Urbach, in: Perakim be-Toledot ha-Ḥevrah ha-Yehudit bi-Ymei ha-Beinayim u-ve-Et ha-Ḥadashah, 1998, 34–44); J. Katz (Zion, 46:2 (1981), 243–46); and G. Blidstein (Binah, 3 (1994), 119–33) argue that the Meiri's idea was a totally new way of viewing the gentiles of his day: The Meiri differentiated between idolaters and gentiles who were religious people, gedurim be-darkhei ha-datot, "restricted" by ways of religion. This concept recognizes that the medieval Christians were not idol worshippers, but people who believed in God, observed religious practices (albeit far from those of Judaism) and were therefore gedurim, "disciplined" by moral values. This concept was used in Jewish polemics and debates with the Christians before the Meiri's time. However, his contribution was to apply it sparingly to those laws meant to prevent close contact between idolaters and Jews. Thus, while the Talmud does not obligate a Jew to return a lost item to a non-Jew, the Meiri claims that this only applies to idolaters. When dealing with gentiles who are not idolaters, there is actually an obligation to return the lost item (Meiri, Bava Kama, p. 330).
The Meiri's view of gentiles stemmed, in part, from his view of history as a progression away from idolatry to morality. He applied this same idea to women. Contrary to Asher ben Jehiel, who viewed women as basically wanton, the Meiri thought them to be moral and even more sin-fearing than men. As a result, he deemed as irrelevant various Talmudic dicta predicated on the immorality of women. The Meiri's comments on the Berakha no. 3 of Sheva Berakhot (Meiri, Ketubbot, p. 38) reveal that women were created with the same ẓelem Elohim as men. He is the only medieval thinker to explicitly state this. Contrary to almost all of the other medieval and renaissance rabbinic scholars, the Meiri calls women ḥasidot (pious ones; Meiri, Ta'anit 30b) and is of the opinion that they share in God's providence, equally with all of God's creatures (Meiri, Sotah, p. 46–47). Meiri also permits women to recite the blessings for mitzvot that they are not obligated to perform (Meiri, Haggigah, p. 31–32). He also permits women to don tefillin. The Meiri valued the desire of women to advance toward perfection through the fulfillment of mitzvot. Indeed, there was no other medieval rabbinic sage that had such a high opinion of women's potential, both morally and intellectually. This attitude was successfully translated by the Meiri into all of his halakhic decisions regarding all the legal issues involving women.
In recent years many collections of extracts from Meiri's works, arranged according to subject, have been published, including a commentary to the Passover Haggadah (1965; ed. by M.M. Meshi-Zahav); Sefer ha-Middot (idem (ed.), 1966), a guide to proper conduct; and an anthology of his biblical expositions (1957), by J.I. Gad. Meiri stands out as the embodiment of the highest qualities which characterized Provençal Jewry: greatness in Torah combined with a leaning toward, and an appreciation of, philosophy, secular erudition, and the sciences in general; unswerving attachment to custom and tradition coupled with a high-minded tolerance of gentile society; and brilliant Torah creativity, brought to expression in fluent, even poetic Hebrew. Meiri was also the last Provençal scholar to embody this synthesis.
S.B. Sofer, Or ha-Me'ir (1942); M.N. Zobel, in: Eder ha-Yakar… Mukdashim le-S.A. Horodezky (1947), 88–96; S.K. Mirsky, in: Talpioth, 4 (1949–50), 1–90; J. Katz, in: Zion, 18 (1953), 15–30; I. Preis-Horev, in: ks, 14 (1937–38), 16–20 no. 56; I. Ta-Shema, ibid., 45 (1970); D. Hoffmann, Der Schulchan Arukh und die Rabbinen ueber das Verhaeltniss der Juden zu Andersglaeubigen (18942), 4–7; J. Stein, in: mgwj, 82 (1938), 46–56; J. Lévi, in: rej, 38 (1899), 103–22; S. Deutschlaender, in: Festschrift… J. Rosenheim (1931), Heb. pt., 82–86; S.K. Mirsky, in: A. Sofer and S.K. Mirsky (eds.), Ḥibbur ha-Teshuvah le-R. Menaḥem b. Shelomo ha-Me'iri (1950), 1–80. add. bibliography: Y.A. Vida, in: Iyyun, 20, (1969), 242–44; A.Y. Bromberg, in: Shanah be-Shanah (1971), 202–15; D. Ochs, in: Bi-Sedei Ḥemed, 15:1–2 (1972), 7–11; J. Katz, in: Zion, 46:2 (1981), 243–46; B.Z. Bendikat, Merkaz ha-Torah be-Provence (1985), 184–91; Y.H. Sofer, in: Ẓefunot, 3:1 (1991), 68–74; idem, in: ibid., 3:2 (1991), 74–79; idem, in: ibid., 4:1 (1992), 81–85; idem, in: ibid., 4:2 (1992), 66–72; G. Blidstein, in: Binah, 3 (1994), 119–33; E. Krumbein, in: Netu'im, 63:1 (1993), 63–118; E.E. Urbach, in: Perakim be-Toledot ha-Ḥevrah ha-Yehudit bi-Ymei ha-Beinayim u-ve-Et ha-Ḥadashah (1998), 34–44; M. Halbertal, Bein Torah le-Ḥokhmah: Rabbi Menaḥem ha-Meiri u-Ba'alei ha-Halakhah ha-Maimoniyyim be-Provence (2001); A. Grossman, in: Zion, 67:3 (2002), 253–91; H. Kasher, in: Zion, 69:3 (2004), 357–60; G. Oren, "Ha-Yaḥas la-Ishah be-Mishnat R. Menaḥem ha-Meiri" (dissertation, 2005).
[Israel Moses Ta-Shma /
David Derovan (2nd ed.)]