Zerahiah ben Isaac ben Shealtiel

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ZERAHIAH BEN ISAAC BEN SHEALTIEL (Gracian (Ḥen )), philosopher, Bible commentator, and translator. Zerahiah was born in Barcelona to a prominent Jewish family, which for several generations produced rabbis and sages. In the last quarter of the 13th century he was active in Rome. The dates of his birth and death are not known; however, in 1290 he regarded himself as an old man, whose time had come to return to his birthplace and to be buried with his ancestors. Nothing is known about him after 1291.

Zerahiah arrived in Rome in the 1270s, where all his writings known to historians were composed in a 15-year period ending in 1291. In Rome he became a recognized authority in philosophy and in philosophical Bible exegesis, and for some years taught Jewish youth courses in Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. In contrast with the rabbinic leadership of the Barcelona community, which at that time was decisively influenced by the teachings of *Naḥmanides, the Jewish communal leadership in Rome was supportive of Zerahiah's rationalist-naturalist approach. His authority was recognized by such prominent communal leaders as Rabbi Shabbetai ben Solomon and Isaac ben Mordecai, the pope's physician; they also supported Zerahiah in his bitter controversy with Hillel ben Samuel of Verona over Hillel's conservative interpretation of Maimonides' philosophy. He seems to have been supported by Immanuel of Rome, who wrote a rhymed letter on his behalf to Hillel. Zerahiah thus found the cultural atmosphere of Roman Jewry congenial, but mocked the Ashkenazi Jews ("who never saw light in the sky").

Zerahiah's thought is largely based on the Jewish and Islamic philosophy he studied in Spain, and his writings only slightly echo scholastic concepts. The only Jewish thinker besides Maimonides whose thought Zerahiah knowingly uses was Samuel ibn *Tibbon. Zerahiah believed in the full harmony of Torah and science, or more precisely, between the esoteric meaning of the Torah and the exoteric doctrines of philosophy, a belief at the foundation of his exegetical approach to the Bible. His philosophical outlook was essentially Aristotelian, frequently in accordance with Ibn Rushd's commentaries. Nevertheless, on central ontological questions he took an independent stance. He strongly emphasized the transcendence of God, negating any relation between God and his creatures, but at the same time believed in the pre-existence of supreme "wisdom," a sort of logos originating in God, by means of which, and in cooperation with, the world was created. This "wisdom" is what established the cosmic order, the eternity of the species, and the fixed revolutions of the heavenly spheres. In this context, Zerahiah needed to employ the overtly Neoplatonic imagery of infinite emanation, by which "wisdom" overflowed and filled the whole cosmos. He also adopted a Neoplatonic stance regarding the concept of time, understanding it as a hypostasis independent of bodies (apparently reflecting the influence of the Liber de Causis which he translated from Arabic into Hebrew). Zerahiah's concept of prophecy was influenced by the lost Arabic version of Aristotle's Parva Naturalia, a version which enabled him to adapt the belief in prophetic revelation in dreams to a philosophic conceptual framework.

Zerahiah sharply criticized the "popular religion" and the cultural world of the early kabbalists, and attacked the belief in magic, *gematria, reincarnation, and the real existence of Satan. His commentary to Job includes a naturalistic critique of Naḥmanides' thought, but he also frequently differed with more rationalist commentators like Abraham *Ibn Ezra and David *Kimḥi.

Zerahiah was the author of the following:

Original Works

  1. Commentary on Proverbs (1288–89), published by I. Schwartz in Ha-Shaḥar, under the title Imrei Da'at (also known as Imrei Shefer) and republished as a separate edition in Vienna, 1871.
  2. Commentary on Job (1290–91), published by Schwartz in Tikvat Enosh (1862; reprinted, Jerusalem, 1969).
  3. Commentary on the Pentateuch, or on certain portions of it, which, however, is no longer extant.
  4. Commentary (extant only in manuscript) on parts of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed (1:1–71 and other passages, especially the 25 propositions appearing at the beginning of Book 2).
  5. Letters of Hillel ben Samuel of Verona and to Judah ben Solomon, printed in Oẓar Neḥmad (1857).

Translations of Philosophical Works from Arabic into Hebrew

  1. Aristotle's De Anima (ed. G. Bos, Leiden, 1994).
  2. hemistius' paraphrase of Aristotle's De Caelo (ed. S. Landauer, Berlin, 1903).
  3. Averroes' Middle Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, De Generatione et Corruptione, and Metaphysics (all extant only in manuscript).
  4. Al-Farabi's treatise on the nature of the soul (ed. Z.H. Edelman, Ḥemdah Genuzah, Koenigsburg, 1856, and by S. Rosenthal, Warsaw, 1857).
  5. Pseudo-Aristotle, Liber de Causis.

Translations of Medical Works from Arabic to Hebrew

  1. Galen's De Causis et Symptonatibus (extant only in manuscript).
  2. Galen's Katagene, ch. 1–3 (extant only in manuscript).
  3. Avicenna's Canon (unfinished; extant only in manuscript).
  4. Maimonides' Aphorisms (extant only in manuscript).
  5. Maimonides' Treatise on Poisonous Drugs (extant only in manuscript).
  6. Maimonides' Shorter Treatise on Sexual Intercourse (ed. H. Kroner, Bopfingen, 1906).


Steinschneider, in: Oẓar Neḥmad, 2 (1857), 229–45; Steinschneider, Uebersetzungen, 111–24, 125, 146, 160, 262, 295, 652, 681, 764, 765; Steinschneider, Arab Lit, 213–19; Dukes, in: hb, 3 (1860), 99–100; Kirchheim, ibid., 4 (1861), 125–6; Carmoly, in: Oẓar Neḥmad, 3 (1860), 109–10; G. Boss, Aristotle's De Anima, translated into Hebrew by Zerahiah ben Isaac ben Shealtiel Hen (1994), 1–4; J. Friedman, "R. Zerahiah ben Shealtiel Hen's Commentary on the Guide of the Perplexed," in: Jacob Friedman Memorial Volume (1974), 3–14 (Heb.); A. Ravitzky, "The Thought of R. Zerahiah ben Shealtiel Hen and the Maimonidean-Tobbonite Philosophy in the 13th Century" (Heb., Ph.D. diss., Jerusalem, 1977); idem, Al Da'at ha-Makom (1991), 133–35, 236–43; idem, "Possible and Contingent Existence in Exegesis of Maimonides in the 13th Century," in: Daat, 2–3 (1978–79), 89–97 (Heb.).

[Aviezer Ravitzky (2nd ed.)]