Samuel ben Hophni

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SAMUEL BEN HOPHNI (d. 1013), gaon of *Sura; he was a descendant of scholars of the *Pumbedita academy, his *Kohen Ẓedek was gaon of Pumbedita, as was his uncle Nehemiah. His father held the post of av bet din at the same academy. Samuel was not appointed to the Pumbedita academy, but became the gaon of the Sura academy about the year 997. *Hai, the noted gaon of Pumbedita, was his son-in-law.

Samuel was one of the most prolific writers of the geonic period. The scope and pattern of his literary activity followed closely the creations of *Saadiah, his great predecessor in office. His literary works, however, did not share the good fortune of Saadiah's; the greater part of his works is no longer extant and is known mainly through book lists, quotations by subsequent scholars, and other indirect references. But significant fragments are slowly coming to light out of the *Genizah. The works of Samuel range over the following central themes: responsa and talmudic treatises, biblical exegesis, philosophy, theology, and polemical writings.

Samuel possessed an orderly, analytical mind which is reflected in both his talmudic and exegetical works. He shows a special predilection for systematic, numbered classification of subjects under discussion. He was the first to write an introduction to the Talmud, summarizing and classifying its basic principles. This work is mentioned by early scholars and is currently being recovered from the Genizah. *Samuel ha-Nagid made use of this work in his Mavo la-Talmud. He also wrote a book of precepts – on the commandments. Some 15 other works on various subjects are known; fragments of some of them have been published. Samuel translated and wrote a commentary on the Pentateuch in Arabic. Scholars differ as to whether it covered the whole Pentateuch or merely completed the work begun by Saadiah and *Aaron ibn Sargado (Gaon of Pumbedita). The translation and commentary of the last three portions of Genesis (ch. 41–50) were published in Arabic by I. Israelsohn (1886). Other scattered verses of the commentary have been published in various periodicals. His commentary was used widely by authors of note such as Abraham *Ibn Ezra, *Abraham b. Moses b. Maimon and *Baḥya b. Asher. The author of the *Midrash ha-Gadol also made use of his work.

In the Bible commentary he employs the above-mentioned method of classification in elaborating on concepts, on meaning of individual words, and on implied talmudic principles. This frequently led him to digressions far from the subject under immediate discussion. His commentary is basically rooted in talmudic-midrashic tradition. At times he offers explanations different from those mentioned in the above sources. Grammatical treatment of words is infrequent, nor does he show acquaintance with the triliteral theory of Hebrew stems advanced by his contemporary Judah ibn Ḥayyuj. Jonah *Ibn Janaḥ in the 11th century refers to him as a commentator of peshat ("literal exegesis").

Of his philosophical works, one is known through references by later authors. He was apparently well acquainted with the classical philosophic writings, and was basically a rationalist. In one connection, his son-in-law Hai speaks disparagingly of him for this reason. Maimonides and his son Abraham refer to his philosophic concepts in support of their own ideas. Samuel makes use of the ideas of the philosophers in his Bible commentary, though he does not quote them directly. There is some uncertainty as to whether Samuel wrote a specific polemical work against the heretics of his time. His books, however, contain direct and indirect refutation of the arguments advanced by numerous skeptical or atheistic groups.

According to revised opinions based on Genizah sources, Samuel died in the year 1013. He was not the last Gaon of Sura, as has been assumed, being succeeded by Dosa son of Saadiah. Following Dosa's death in 1017, Samuel's own son Israel succeeded to the gaonate, and even after his death in 1034, the Sura academy continued to function. The bibliography of his published works and letters was edited by A. David in the preface to the book Me'assef Nidaḥim by A.E. Harkavy (1970), a great part of which was dedicated to Samuel b. Hophni.


A. Harkavy, Zikkaron la-Rishonim, 1 pt. 3 (1880); Mann, Texts, index, s.v.; idem, in: huca Jubilee Volume (1925), 233–4; S. Assaf, Tekufat ha-Ge'onim ve-Sifrutah (1955), 194–7; idem, in: Tarbiz, 18 (1946/47), 28–33; A. Greenbaum, in: L. Jung Jubilee Volume (1962), 215–39 (Heb. pt.); Bacher, in: rej, 15 (1887), 277–88; 16 (1888), 106–23; Abramson, in: Tarbiz, 17 (1945/46), 138–64; 18 (1946/47), 34–45; M. Zucker, Al Targum Rav Saadiah Gaon la-Torah (1959), 22–29; idem, in: Abraham Weiss Jubilee Volume (1964), 461–81 (Heb. section); Ibn Daud, Tradition, 60.

[Aaron Greenbaum]

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Samuel ben Hophni

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