Menahem ben Aaron Ibn Zeraḥ

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


MENAHEM BEN AARON IBN ZERAḤ (c. 1310–1385), codifier. Menahem was born in Estella, Navarre, where his father had settled after leaving his native France, on the expulsion of the Jews in 1306. In 1328 riots broke out against the Jews of Navarre and the Estella community suffered severely. All of Menahem's family, including his parents and four brothers, were killed, and he himself was severely wounded, but his life was saved by a Christian friend of the family. When he recovered, he went to Toledo and studied in the yeshivot there. Among his teachers were Joseph b. Shuʿayb and Judah the son of *Asher b. Jehiel (the Rosh). From Toledo he went to Alcalá and studied under Joseph b. al-ʿAysh, succeeding him on his death in 1361. In Alcalá also, there were troubles and suffering. Fratricidal war had broken out in Spain between the two aspirants to the throne, Henry of Trastamara and Pedro the Cruel, and many Jewish communities suffered as a result. Menahem escaped to safety through the help of the royal courtier Don Samuel *Abrabanel, and Menahem praises him in the introduction to his Ẓeidah la-Derekh.

In Toledo Menahem compiled his Ẓeidah la-Derekh, a code of laws dealing in the main with the laws concerning the daily way of life. The work has an added importance on account of the introduction, which contains valuable historical material, including important details of the method of study in the yeshivot of France and Germany, as well as contemporary incidents in the history of the Jews in Spain. The book was designed as an abridged code for the upper classes who, because of their preoccupation with material concerns, had no time to refer to the sources. He writes reprovingly of those Jews who, because of the demands of the times, began to disregard the observance of the precepts. Although he shows great erudition in his knowledge of the Talmud and codes and was acquainted with the teachings of the earlier Spanish, French, and German scholars, he relies mainly for his halakhic rulings on those of Asher b. Jehiel.

Menahem gives much information about the different customs of the Jews of Spain, France, and Germany, as well as of various communities (see pp. 71, 82, 88, 104, 110, 116 in the Warsaw edition of 1880). He had some knowledge of medicine, and in the code he includes the need to preserve one's bodily health (see pp. 28–33; et al.). He also knew astronomy and believed in astrology (pp. 98–120). Although he criticized philosophy, he appears to have engaged in its study to some extent (104–48). In these sciences, however, Menahem merely gleaned from the works of others. His work reflects contemporary conditions. He complains that many of the youth, particularly children of the wealthy, were careless in the observance of the precepts and scoffed at the words of the sages, and some were even licentious in matters of sex (pp. 68–81). The book is divided into five ma'amarim ("articles"), which are divided into kelalim ("principles"), which are subdivided into chapters. The first ma'amar discusses prayer and the blessings; the second, the halakhot of *issur ve-hetter; the third, laws of marriage; the fourth, the festivals; and the fifth, fasting and mourning, the Messiah, and the resurrection. It was first published in Ferrara in the printing press of Abraham Usque in 1554. In addition to his major work, three small works by Menahem are extant in manuscript – an abridgment of Baḥya ibn Paquda's Ḥovot ha-Levavot, Hilkhot Sheḥitah u-Vedikah, and Menaḥem Avelim – it is possible however, that they are simply abridgments from his Ẓeidah la-Derekh (see A. Freimann, in: Annuario di Studi Ebraici (1934), 166ff.).


Weiss, Dor, 5 (19044), 126–8, 210; A. Freimann, in: Annuario di Studi Ebraici, 1 (1935), 147–67; H. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 2 (1947), 191–8; Urbach, Tosafot, 15, 210, 454, 465; Baer, Spain, 1 (1966), 373, 378, 419, 450f.

[Shlomo Eidelberg]