About Shmuel ben Hophni haKohen haNagid, Last Gaon of Sura
Samuel ben Ḥophni Gaon
Samuel ben Ḥophni (d. 1013) was the gaon of the Sura yeshiva and an original exegete, theologian, and halakhist who continued in the Judeo-Arabic cultural and literary path forged by Saʿadya Gaon. Ben Ḥophni was a scion of a family that occupied a leadership position at the Pumbedita yeshiva in the tenth century. His grandfather Kohen Ṣedeq ben Joseph was gaon of Pumbedita from 917 to 935. His uncle Neḥemiah was gaon from 960 to 968, and his father, Neḥemiah’s younger brother, had been av bet din (chief judge of the court). Around 998, Samuel was selected to succeed Ṣemaḥ Ṣedeq ben Isaac as gaon of Sura. However, in 997, while still in Pumbeditha under the leadership of Sherira Gaon, he asked his supporters to address their questions, together with their contributions, to him, explaining that he did not receive any of the contributions they sent to the academy. This did not necessarily indicate the he was confronting Sherira's leadership, and it may be that the position that he held within the yeshiva at this time actually permitted him do this according to some agreement. It certainly indicates his ambition for leadership and is a further indication of the tension between him and Sherira. This conflict with Sherira can be traced back to the time of Ben Ḥophni’s uncle Neḥemiah. It was eventually settled with a mutual agreement on a fair division of the contributions and the marriage of Sherira’s son Hay to Ben Ḥophni’s daughter.
The academy at Sura, which had only reopened a few years before, went into a decline and experienced a financial crisis during Samuel ben Ḥophni’s gaonate. He made every effort to reestablish connections with the supporting communities, and testified that “many times the students are without food and starve.” When Ben Ḥophni died in 1013, he was succeeded by Dosa ben Saʿadya. Later his own son Israel ben Samuel also became gaon in Sura.
Samuel ben Ḥophni was one of the most prolific gaonic writers. His literary activities began when he was still in Pumbedita. His letters eagerly encourage the addressees to send him all their queries and doubts concerning the Bible, Mishna, and Talmud. So far as is known, Ben Ḥophni wrote around sixty-five works on biblical exegesis, Talmud, halakha, and philosophy, all in Judeo-Arabic, but not even one of them has survived in full. Some of his works are known only from their titles in book lists; parts of others survived in the Cairo Geniza and are in an ongoing process of publication.
1. Bible Exegesis
Ben Ḥophni wrote commentaries on the second part of Genesis, the entire book of Numbers, and the first part of Deuteronomy, the same portions which were not interpreted by his predecessors Saʿadya Gaon and Aaron Ibn Sarjado. Some claim, based on quotations in the writings of medieval scholars, that Ben Ḥophni wrote a commentary on the entire Pentateuch, but it is more likely that the quotations are from commentaries to special pericopae done by special order, and not from a full commentary. His commentary on the second part of Genesis, together with other passages, was published by Greenbaum.
Ben Ḥophni’s commentary on the Pentateuch, like the commentary of Saʿadya Gaon before him, is committed to interpreting the plain meaning of the scriptures, but it tends to be lengthy, with digressions not necessarily related to the text or, for that matter, to matters of interpretation. For instance, discussing Jacob’s lament in the commentary on Genesis, he gives several sample eulogies, stating that “they will serve professional mourners,” and he also thoroughly discusses the laws of mourning. Ben Ḥophni’s approach to the aggada is clearly rationalistic, and he does not hesitate to neglect homilies that contradict reason. This is not much different from the practice of some of the geonim who preceded him, such as Saʿadya and Sherira, but he was more extreme in applying the principle. Moreover, he uniquely held that miracles were done only for the benefit of the prophets. Accordingly, he claimed, the witch of En-Dor did not actually revive Samuel; it was only a illusion. This assertion aroused considerable interest, and his son-in-law, Hay Gaon, attributed it to non-Jewish influence, noting that Ḥophni “read much in Gentile books.” In fact, it is evident in all of Ben Ḥophni’s works, whether exegetical, philosophical, or even halakhic, that he had a good knowledge of Arabic literature and Kalām philosophy, especially according to the Muʿtazilite school.
2. Kalām and Legal Theory
Samuel Ben Ḥophni wrote ten or so books in the areas of Kalām and legal theory. Among them were the Treatise on Divine Names and Attributes and the Treatise on Abrogation of the Law, a great part of which is devoted to the story of the witch of En-Dor. The first part of his Treatise on the Commandments deals with theoretical issues, such as the sources of obligation and the methods of legal interpretation; the second part classifies the commandments in different categories. Legal theory is also the subject of his Ten Questions. Chapters from the last two books were published by Sklare.
3. Talmud and Halakha
Ben Ḥophni wrote commentaries on several tractates or chapters of tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, among them Shabbat, Yevamot, and Ketubbot, but none of these works have survived. More important is his Introduction to the Study of the Mishna and Talmud (Jud.-Ar. al-Madkhal ilā ʿilm al- Mishna wa ʿl-Talmūd) in 145 chapters. This extensive work on methodology includes theoretical chapters on tradition, including how it can be transformed and how its reliability can be verified, along with other chapters defining talmudic legal terms, explaining the principles of halakhic decision-making, and more. A few chapters from the beginning of the book and the conclusion were published by Abramson.
In addition, Ben Ḥophni wrote some forty-five halakhic monographs, almost all in the areas of civil law, monetary law, and laws of matrimony, intended primarily for the use of professional judges. In some instances he discusses topics already addressed by Saʿadya, such as the laws of sales and gift. The monographs are all structured the same way, very like the works of Saʿadya Gaon and Hay Gaon, and show the influence of parallel patterns in Arabic literature. Nonetheless, Ben Ḥophni’s unique approach is readily apparent in the strictly scientific method of classification whereby halakhic materials are sorted and rearranged in numbered lists independent of the talmudic sources.
Some of Ben Ḥophni’s books were quite extensive in scope: the Treatise on Sales had eighty chapters, and the Treatise on Divorce had at least fifty-one, only a few of which have survived and been published. Among the many other books that have been published in part are the Treatise on the Obligation of Judges (Assaf), Treatise on Surety and Guarantees (Lewin, Assaf, Greenbaum, Libson), Treatise on Abutter’s Rights (Libson), Treatise on Partnerships (Friedlander, Lewin), and Treatise on the Laws of Acquisition (Abramson). One exception to this list is the Treatise on the Laws of Ṣiṣit (Tavger), which deals with one of the daily religious rituals. Two other books in this category, Chapters on Slaughtering and Chapters on Blessings, have been attributed to Ben Ḥophni, but are known only by their Hebrew translations in European manuscripts and quotations. The first is also known from book lists, but the second is mentioned only by European scholars and its authorship is doubtful. Aside from these two books, which deal with topics of religious ritual, not one book from the substantial corpus of Ben Ḥophni’s halakhic writing on civil law was translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages. Thus none of them reached Europe, and his written legacy was lost with the decline of the Eastern communities.
In contrast to Ben Ḥophni’s literary output, only a small number of his responsa are extant, which is all the more striking when compared with the vast number of responsa from his contemporaries, Sherira and Hay. This may well be further evidence of the sorry state of the Sura yeshiva in his lifetime. About a dozen letters from Ben Ḥophni have been preserved.
Abramson, Shraga. Inyanot be-Sifrut ha-Ge'onim (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1974), pp. 139–176.
Ben-Sasson, Menahem. “Fragmentary Letters from the Genizah,” Tarbi ẓ 56 (1987): 184–188 [Hebrew].
Gil, Moshe. Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2004), pp. 359–371.
Harkavy, Abraham. Zikhron ha-Gaon Rav Shemuel ben Ḥ ofni u-Sefarav (St. Petersburg: Studien und Mittheilungen aus der Kaiserlichen Öffentlichen Bibliothek, 1880).
Libson, Gideon. “The Structure, Scope and Development of the Halakhic Monographs of Rav Shemuʼel ben Ḥofni Gaon”, Teʻuda 15 (1999), pp. 189-240.
Mann, Jacob. Texts and Studies, vol. 1 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1931), pp. 153–166.
Sklare, David E. Samuel ben Ḥ ofni Gaon and His Cultural World (Brill: Leiden, 1996).
Stampfer, Zvi. Laws of Divorce by Samuel ben Ḥofni Gaon (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2008).
Roni Shweka. " Samuel ben Ḥophni Gaon." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 17 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/samuel-ben-hophni-gaon-SIM_0019110>