Samuel ben Hofni

Samuel ben Hofni (Hebrew: שמואל בן חפני, or full name: רב שמואל בן חפני גאון [abbreviation: רשב"ח] or שמואל בן חפני הכהן; also: Samuel b. Hofni or Samuel ha-Kohen ben Hofni; died 1034) was the last gaon of Sura. His father was a Talmudic scholar and chief judge ("ab bet din," probably of Fez), one of whose responsa are extant (see Zunz, Ritus, p. 191; Steinschneider, Hebr. Bibl. xx. 132), and on whose death Samuel wrote an elegy. Samuel was the father-in-law of Hai ben Sherira Gaon, who is authority for the statement that Samuel, like many of his contemporaries, zealously pursued the study of non-Jewish literature.[1] Beyond these few data, nothing is known of the events of Samuel's life.

His responsa

Although, as a rule, geonic literature consists mainly of responsa, Samuel ben Ḥofni composed but few of these.[2] This was because the Academy of Sura had for a century occupied a less prominent position than that of Pumbedita, and that, especially in the time of Hai ben Sherira, information was preferably sought at the latter institution.

A genizah fragment of the Taylor-Schechter collection, containing a letter to Shemariah ben Elhanan written, according to Schechter's opinion, by Samuel ben Ḥofni, and another letter of Samuel's to Kairwan,[3] show the great efforts which at this time the last representative of the Babylonian schools had to make to maintain the ancient seats of learning in Babylonia.[4] Samuel's responsa, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic (those written in Arabic were translated into Hebrew), treat of "tefillin" and "ẓiẓit," the Sabbath and holy days, forbidden and permitted food (kashrut), women, priests, servants, property rights, and other questions of civil law. They consist chiefly of explanations of the Talmud and include some very short halakic decisions, from which fact it is surmised that they are taken from his Talmud treatise Sha'are Berakot.[5] With the intellectual independence peculiar to him, he occasionally declares a Talmudic law to be without Biblical foundation, and when an explanation in the Talmud seems inadequate, he adds one of his own which is satisfactory.[6]

Samuel wrote Madkhal ila 'al-Talmud (Hebrew title, "Mebo ha-Talmud"), an Arabic introduction to the Talmud which is known only through citations from it made by Abu al-Walid,[7] Joseph ibn 'Aḳnin, and Abraham Zacuto. His treatise concerning the hermeneutic rules in the Talmud is known only by name. Some of Samuel ben Ḥofni's teachings, not found in any other sources, have been conveyed in Nathan ben Abraham's Judeo-Arabic Mishnah commentary, supplemented by an anonymous copyist in the 12th-century.[8] The entire work has been translated into Hebrew by Rabbi Yosef Qafih.


Samuel's systematic treatises on many portions of the Talmudic law surpassed in number those of his predecessors. They were composed in Arabic, although some bore corresponding familiar Hebrew titles. They are:

  • Aḥkām Shar‘ al-Ẓiẓit, ten chapters, on rules concerning fringes (tzitzit) (Harkavy, Studien und Mittheilungen, iii. 31, note 77)
  • Lawāzim al-Aḥkām, known from a citation (Harkavy, l.c. p. 35, note 93), from the catalogue of a book-dealer of the twelfth century (this catalogue was found among the genizah fragments of Fostat, and was published by E. N. Adler and I. Broydé in J. Q. R. xiii. 52 et seq.), and from fragments recently (1906) discovered and published by Schechter (l.c. p. 114)
  • Al-Bulūgh wa'l-Idrāk, in six chapters, on the attainment of one's majority (bar mitzvah) (Harkavy, l.c. p. 31, note 77)
  • Fī al-Ṭalāq (appears in the above-mentioned catalogue under the title Kitāb al-Ṭalāq), on divorce
  • Naskh al-Shar‘ wa-Uṣūl al-Dīn wa-Furū‘ihā (i.e., "Abrogation of the Law and the Foundations of Religion and Its Branches"), cited by Judah ibn Balaam and Moses ibn Ezra (Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. cols. 880, 2164; idem, Polemische und Apologetische Litteratur, p. 102; Harkavy, l.c. p. 40, notes 112-114)
  • Fī al-Nafaqāt, concerning taxes (Harkavy, l.c. p. 34, note 90)
  • Al-Shuf‘a, twenty chapters, concerning boundary disputes (Harkavy, l.c. p. 30, note 60)
  • al-Risālah al-Shakīrīyah (= Hebrew, שכירות, mentioned by Moses ibn Ezra; see Schreiner in R. E. J. xxii. 69), probably concerning the hiring of persons
  • Al-Sharā’i‘, concerning commandments (see Schechter, l.c. p. 43); divided into "gates" or chapters ("she‘arim") with separate titles, e.g., Sha‘are Sheḥiṭut; Sha‘ar shel Bediḳut ha-Basar min ha-Ḥeleb; Sha‘are Berakhot. The last-mentioned part has been edited in Hebrew by I. H. Weiss in Bet Talmud, ii. 377, and partially translated into German in Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Litteratur, ii. 49.
  • Shurūṭ, concerning contracts (see Œuvres de Saadia, ix., p. xxxviii.)
  • Ha-Mattanah, concerning gifts (Harkavy, l.c. p. 36, notes 97, 98)
  • Ha-Shuttafut, concerning partnership (Harkavy, l.c. note 96; for further references see Steinschneider, Die Arabische Literatur, pp. 108 et seq.)

The above-mentioned catalogue (see J. Q. R. xiii. 60, 62) contains in addition the following titles of works by Samuel on the same subjects of Talmudic law:

  • Kitāb Aḥkām al-Piqqadon, concerning deposits
  • Kitāb al-Mujāwara, concerning neighborhood
  • Kitāb al-Bay‘," concerning sales

The catalogue (l.c. p. 59, No. 56) ascribes to Samuel ben Ḥofni likewise a commentary on the tractate Yebamot. Moreover, Schechter's genizah fragments contain the beginning of an Arabic commentary by Samuel on a Hebrew "reshut" of Saadia's (Saadyana, pp. 43, 54, where further writings of his previously unknown are mentioned; see also Samuel Poznanski in Zeit. für Hebr Bibl. vii. 109).

As Bible Exegete

The most important work of Samuel, however, was in Bible exegesis. As early a writer as Abū al-Walīd (Kitāb al-Luma‘, p. 15) called him a leading advocate of simple, temperate explanation ("peshaṭ"), and Abraham ibn Ezra, although finding fault with his verbosity, placed him in the front rank of Bible commentators of the geonic period (see Bacher, Abraham ibn Ezra's Einleitung zu Seinem Pentateuch-Commentar, etc., p. 18). In modern times his significance as a Bible exegete has been given proper appreciation through Harkavy's studies of the manuscripts in the St. Petersburg Library (see Berliner's Magazin, v. 14 et seq., 57 et seq.; Harkavy, l.c. i., iii.; Steinschneider, Hebr. Bibl. xx. 132 et seq.).

Translations of the Bible

Samuel ben Ḥofni wrote, besides, an Arabic translation of the Pentateuch with a commentary, a commentary on some of the Prophets, and perhaps a commentary on Ecclesiastes (see Harkavy, l.c. iii. 24, note 59; Poznanski, l.c. ii. 55, note 5). M. I. Israelsohn (Samuelis b. Hofni Trium Sectionum Posteriorum Libri Genesis Versio Arabica cum Commentario, St. Petersburg, 1886) has published a portion of Samuel's Pentateuch translation (Gen. xli.-l.) with commentary. The deficiencies in these edited fragments might be supplied by the citations in Abraham Maimonides' commentary on Genesis and Exodus (Neubauer, Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS. No. 276). The German translation of a specimen of these fragments is given in Winter and Wünsche (l.c. ii. 254). The fragments show that Samuel's translation of the Pentateuch was dependent upon, though it was more literal than, that of Saadia, which had been written almost one hundred years earlier. In contrast to Saadia, Samuel gives Hebrew proper names in their original form. Grammatical notes occupy a remarkably small space in his verbose commentary, and his grammatical point of view was that taken by scholars before the time of Ḥayyuj. On the other hand, he gives careful consideration to the chronology of Bible accounts, and in explaining a word he gives all its various meanings besides references to its occurrence elsewhere. His source is the midrashic and Talmudic literature, though he specifically mentions only the Seder Olam and the Targum Onḳelos (see Bacher in R. E. J. xv. 277, xvi. 106 et seq.).

Polemical Writings

Samuel ben Ḥofni is mentioned in connection with Saadia and Muḳammaṣ as a polemical writer (Steinschneider, Jewish Literature, p. 319); an anti-Karaite work entitled Arayot, on the degrees of relationship, is ascribed to him (Fürst, Gesch. des Karäert. ii. 153), but whether correctly or incorrectly is not certain (see the above-mentioned catalogue, Nos. 58-59). Kabalists have assigned to him a Sefer ha-Yashar (Zunz, S. P. p. 146), and a request directed to Saadia for his decision on oaths.

Theological views

Samuel ben Ḥofni is justly called a rationalist (Schreiner, in Monatsschrift, 1886, pp. 315 et seq.). In religious matters he considered reason higher than tradition (Harkavy, l.c. note 34). Holding to a belief in the creation of the world out of nothing, he rejected astrology and everything that reason denies. He deliberately placed himself in opposition to Saadia, who had held fast to the belief that the witch of En-dor had brought Samuel to life again, that the serpent had spoken to Eve, and the ass to Balaam, even though he felt himself compelled to explain the wonders by supplying the intermediary agency of angels. Samuel denied these and similar miracles, and, with an irony reminiscent of Ḥiwi al-Balkhi, he put the question, "Why, if they were able to do so at one time, do serpents not speak at present?"

According to his conception, God changes the natural order of things only when He wishes to verify before all people the words of a prophet (Teshubot ha-Ge'onim, ed. Lyck, No. 99). This view was opposed by his son-in-law Hai Gaon. That in later times he was not termed a heretic, although disparaging criticism was not lacking, was due to his position as gaon (see Weiss, l.c. iv. 198; Menahem Me'iri, Bet ha-Beḥirah, in Adolf Neubauer, M. J. C. ii. 225).


  1. Tesḥubot ha-Ge'onim, ed. Lyck, 1864, No. 99.
  2. See Rapoport in Bikkure ha-'Ittim, xi. 90; Julius Fürst in Orient, Lit. x. 188; Weiss, Dor, iv. 192, note 2; Müller, Mafteaḥ, pp. 168 et seq.; Harkavy, Zikron la-Rishonim, etc., iv. 146, 258; Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Litteratur, pp. 50 et seq.; Schechter, Saadyana, p. 61.
  3. J. Q. R. xiv. 308.
  4. Schechter, l.c. p. 121.
  5. Weiss, l.c. p, 193; Steinschneider, Die Arabische Literatur der Juden, p. 109.
  6. Sha'are Ẓedeḳ, i. 305.
  7. Kitab al-Uṣul, ed. Adolf Neubauer, p. 166.
  8. Yosef Qafih, "Yemenite Jewry's Connections with Major Jewish Centers", in: Ascending the Palm Tree – An Anthology of the Yemenite Jewish Heritage, Rachel Yedid & Danny Bar-Maoz (ed.), E'ele BeTamar: Rehovot 2018, p. 29 OCLC 1041776317

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Samuel Ben Hofni". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

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