BAḤYA (BEḤAI) BEN ASHER BEN HALAWA:
One of the most distinguished of the Biblical exegetes of Spain; born about the middle of the thirteenth century at Saragossa; died 1340. A pupil of Solomon ben Adret, Baḥya did not, like his eminent teacher, devote his attention to Talmudic science, but to Biblical exegesis, taking for his model Moses ben Naḥman, the teacher of Solomon ben Adret, who was the first to make use of the Cabala as a means of interpreting the Scriptural word. He discharged with zeal and earnestness the duties of a darshan in Saragossa, sharing this position with several others, and on this account receiving but a small salary, which was scarcely enough to support him and his family; but neither his struggle for daily bread nor the reverses that he suffered (to which he referred in the introduction to his commentary on the Pentateuch) diminished his interest in religious studies in general, and in Biblical exegesis in particular.His Commentary.
Baḥya's principal work was his commentary on the Pentateuch, in the preparation of which he thoroughly investigated the works of former Biblical exegetes, using all the methods employed by them in his interpretations. He enumerates the following four methods, all of which in his opinion are indispensable to the exegete: (1) The "Peshaṭ," or the simple and direct exposition advocated by Rashi and Ḥananel ben Ḥushiel, whom Baḥya recognizes as authorities, and whose works he industriously employs. (2) The "Midrash," or the haggadic exegesis, accorded considerable space in his commentary; there being scarcely a haggadic work which has not been employed by him. However, he usually confines himself to a literal quotation without further exposition. (3) The method of Reason, or philosophical exegesis, the aim of which is to demonstrate that philosophical truths are already embodied in Holy Writ, which as a work of God transcends all the wisdom of man. He therefore recognizes the results of philosophical thought only in so far as they do not conflict with Scripture and tradition. (4) The method of the Cabala, termed by him "the path of light," which the truth-seeking soul must travel. It is by means of this method, Baḥya believes, that the deep mysteries hidden in the Scriptural word may be revealed, and many a dark passage elucidated.
Baḥya's commentary derives a particular charm from its form. Each parashah, or weekly lesson, is prefaced by an introduction preparing the reader for the fundamental ideas to be discussed; and this introduction bears a motto in the form of some verse selected from the Proverbs. Furthermore, by the questions that are frequently raised the reader is compelled to take part in the author's mental processes; the danger of monotony being also thereby removed. The commentary was first printed at Naples in 1492; and the favor which it enjoyed is attested by the numerous supercommentaries published on it. Owing to the large space devoted to the Cabala, the work was particularly valuable to cabalists, although Baḥya also availed himself of non-Jewish sources. Later editions of the commentary appeared at Pesaro, 1507, 1514, and 1517; Constantinople, 1517; Rimini, 1524; Venice, 1544, 1546, 1559, 1566, and later. Not less than ten supercommentaries are enumerated by Bernstein ("Monatsschrift," xviii. 194-196), which give further evidence of the popularity of the work.Other Works.
Baḥya's other great work, the "Kad ha-Ḳemaḥ" (Flour-Jar), called by David Gans "Sefer ha-Derashot" (Book of Discourses), consists of sixty chapters, alphabetically arranged, containing discourses and dissertations on all the requirements of religion and morality as well as on the principal ceremonial ordinances. Its purpose is to preserve and promote the religious and moral life. In clear and simple language, and with great minuteness of detail, the author discusses the following subjects: belief and faith in God; the divine attributes and the nature of Providence; the duty of loving God, and of walking before Him in simplicity and humility of heart; the fear of God; prayer, and the house of God; benevolence, and the love of mankind; peace; the administration of justice, and the sacredness of the oath; the duty of respecting the property and honor of one's fellow man; the high value of the days consecrated to God, and of the ceremonial ordinances. The entire work is distinguished by a fervid piety, coupled with broad-mindedness which can not fail to appeal to the heart of the reader. It lays special stress on the duty of righteousness toward the non-Jewish brother. Numerous passages are borrowed from his own commentary and from the works of Abraham ben Ḥiyyah and of Moses b. Naḥman. While the commentary on the Pentateuch was written for the scientifically educated, the "Kad ha-Ḳemaḥ" was intended for a wider circle of readers. Of the many editions which appeared, the first one is that of Constantinople, 1515; then one in Venice, 1545; Lublin, 1596, and others; a critical edition by Breit, Lemberg, 1880. A third work of Baḥya, also published frequently, and in the first Mantua edition of 1514 erroneously ascribed to Moses ben Naḥman, bears the title of "Shulḥan Arba'" (Table of Four [Meals]). It consists of four chapters,the first three of which contain religious rules of conduct regarding the various meals, while the fourth chapter treats of the banquet of the righteous in the world to come.
A fourth work of Baḥya, edited by M. Homburg under the title of "Soba' Semaḥot" (Fulness of Joy), as being a commentary on Job, is, according to B. Bernstein, in "Magazin für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums," xviii. 41, nothing but a compilation of the two last-mentioned works of Baḥya.
A fifth work written by Baḥya under the title of "Ḥoshen ha-Mishpaṭ" (Breastplate of Judgment), to which reference is once made in his commentary as a book in which he dwelt at greater length on the nature and the degrees of prophecy, has been lost. Another cabalistic-exegetical work by Baḥya under the title "Sefer ha-Emuna weha-Biṭṭaḥon" (Book on Belief and Trust), edited first in a collection, "Arze Lebanon," Venice, 1601, only the first chapter of which justifies the title, while the following twenty-five chapters treat of the name of God, prayer, the benedictions at meals, the Patriarchs and the Twelve Tribes, has also been erroneously ascribed by the copyists to Moses ben Naḥman (see Perles, "Monatssch." vii. 93; Steinschneider, "Cat. Bodl." col. 1964; Jellinek, "Beiträge z. Kabbala," i. 40 et seq.), but has been shown by Reifmann ("Ha-Maggid," 1861, p. 222) and Bernstein (l.c. 34) to have all the characteristics of Baḥya's method and style, and appears to be older than his commentary. Baḥya's works possess especial value both for the student of Jewish literature, owing to the author's copious and extensive quotations from Midrashic and exegetical works which have since been lost, and for the student of modern languages on account of the frequent use of words from the vernacular (Arabic, Spanish, and French) in explanation of Biblical terms. They also contain interesting material for the study of the social life as well as for the history of the Cabala, the demonology and eschatology of the Jews in Spain, as Bernstein in his instructive article (l.c.) has shown.
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. pp. 777-780;
- Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Literatur, ii. 21, 433-434;
- B. Bernstein, in Magazin für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums, xviii.(1891), pp. 27-47, 85-115, 165-196.