Samuel ben Ali

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SAMUEL BEN ALI (Samuel ha-Levi ben al-Dastur – "the Aristocrat"; d. 1194), one of the geonim of the post-geonic period (which lasted for about 200 years after the geonic period proper). He was the most prominent and important of the 12th-century Babylonian scholars, and the only one of the neogeonic period whose written work has survived. Samuel was head of the academy in Baghdad for about 30 years. He was also the recognized leader of the neighboring countries, according to the statement of the traveler, Pethahiah of Regensburg: "In the whole of Assyria, in Damascus, in the towns of Persia and Media and in Babylon, they have no dayyan except one assigned by Samuel, head of the academy, and he appoints judges and teachers in every town" (ed. by L. Greenhut (1905), 10). Both Benjamin of Tudela and Pethahiah describe in the diaries of their travels the manner of Samuel's influence and his conduct of the academy, which resembled to a certain degree the customs of both the geonim and of the exilarchs. Samuel is chiefly known for his polemics with Maimonides both on halakhic matters and on Maimonides' attitude to the resurrection of the dead (Ma'amar TeḤiyyat ha-Metim, in: Koveẓ Teshuvot ha-Rambam (1859) pt. 2, 8dff.). Samuel wrote glosses to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, who replied in a letter to his pupil in Baghdad, Joseph b. Judah (She'elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rambam, ed. by J. Blau, 3 (1961), 142 no. 464). In addition to his well-known responsum on the subject of traveling on rivers on the Sabbath (ibid., 2 (1960), 570 no. 309), several of his responsa have been published by Poznański (responsum to Moses of Kiev, a pupil of Jacob Tam; see bibl., 53–56), Aptowitzer (on the minutest quantum of Ḥameẓ), and Mann (a responsum of 1166; hḤy, 6 (1922), 104ff. A large and important collection of letters by Samuel and his contemporaries was published by Assaf in Tarbiz, Year i (1930).

Samuel had one daughter who was well versed in the Bible and the Talmud, and she taught Bible through a window of the building in which she sat, the pupils outside below unable to see her (Pethahiah, p. 9f.). There is also a reference to his two sons-in-law, Zechariah b. Berachel of Aleppo, "the av bet din of the yeshivah" (letter of Samuel, in: Tarbiz 1, no. 2 (1930), 61), who was greatly praised by his father-in-law, and "his beloved son-in-law and pupil… head of the academy, Azariah (Eleazar ha-Bavli, Diwan, ed. by H. Brody (1935), no. 10, p. 13). Some (S. Assaf) think that Azariah is a copyist's error (though it occurs twice) for Zechariah, while others hold that Samuel had two daughters married to these two scholars. A third view is that his only daughter was betrothed to Azariah, who died before the marriage, and that she subsequently married Zechariah. There is no sufficient basis to the statement that the daughter died the same day as her father, although it is possible that Azariah died the same day as Samuel.


S. Poznański, Babylonische Geonim in nachgeonaeischem Zeitalter (1914), 15ff., and index; V. Aptowitzer, in: zhb, 19 (1916), 36f.; J. Mann, in: hḤy, 6 (1922), 106–22; idem, in: huca, 3 (1926), 294f.; Mann, Texts, index; S. Assaf, in: Tarbiz, 1 (1930), no. 1, 102–30, no. 2, 43–84, no. 3, 15–80; idem, Tekufat ha-Ge'onim ve-Sifrutah (1955), 127–9; A.H. Freimann, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… B.M. Lewin (1940), 27–41; D.H. Baneth (ed.), Iggerot ha-Rambam (1946), 31–90; Dinur, Golah, 2 vol. 3 (1968), 115–26, 332–4.

[Samuel Abba Horodezky]