ABRAHAM BEN DAVID OF POSQUIÈRES (RABaD III. ):
By: Louis Ginzberg
French Talmudic commentator; born in Provence, France, about 1125; died at Posquières, Nov. 27, 1198. Son-in-law of Abraham ben Isaac Ab-Bet-Din (RABaD II). The teachers under whose guidance he acquired most of his Talmudic learning were Moses ben Joseph (according to Michael, "Or ha-Ḥayyim," p. 24, the latter was the chief teacher of RABaD, but the manuscript note to which Michael refers reads quite differently in Buber's introduction to "Shibbale ha-Leḳeṭ") and Meshullam ben Jacob of Lunel. RABaD (abbreviation for Rabbi Abraham ben David) remained in Lunel after completing his studies, and subsequently became one of the rabbinical authorities of that city. He went to Montpellier, where he remained but a short time, and then removed to Nîmes, where he lived for a considerable period. Moses ben Judah ("Temim De'im," p. 6b) refers to the rabbinical school of Nîmes, then under Abraham's direction, as the chief seat of Talmudic learning in Provence.Persecution.
But the real center of RABaD's activity was Posquières, after which place he is often called. It is difficult to determine when he removed to Posquières; but about 1165 Benjamin of Tudela, at the outset of his travels, called upon him there. This traveler speaks of RABaD's wealth and benevolence. Not only did he erect and keep in repair a large school-building, but he cared for the material welfare of the poor students as well. It was his great wealth which brought him into peril of his life; for, in order to obtain some of it, Elzéar, the lord of Posquières, had him cast into prison, where, like Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, he might have perished, had not Count Roger II. of Carcassonne, who was friendly to the Jews, intervened, and by virtue of his sovereignty banished the lord of Posquières to Carcassonne. Thereupon Abraham ben David returned to Posquières, where he remained until his death. Among the many learned Talmudists who were his disciples in Posquières were Isaac ha-Kohen of Narbonne, the first commentator upon the Talmud Yerushalmi; Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel, author of "Ha-Manhig"; Meir ben Isaac of Carcassonne, author of the "Sefer ha-'Ezer"; and Asher ben Meshullam of Lunel, author of several rabbinical works. RABaD's influence on Jonathan of Lunel also is evident, though the latter did not attend his lectures.Literary Works.
Besides being an active teacher, Abraham was a prolific author; for he not only wrote answers to hundreds of learned questions—which responsa are still partially preserved in the collections "Temim De'im," Orḥot Ḥayyim," and "Shibbale ha-Leḳeṭ"—but he also wrote a commentary on the whole Talmud and compiled several compendiums of rabbinical law. Most of his works are lost; but those which have been preserved, such as the "Sefer Ba'ale ha-Nefesh" (The Book of the Con-scientious), a treatise on the laws relating to women, published in 1602, and his commentary on Torat Kohanim, published in 1862 at Vienna, are sufficient evidence of his untiring industry and remarkable intellect. Neither his codifications of law nor his commentaries are true examples of his strength. The title of "Baal Hasagot" (Critic), given him frequently by the rabbis, shows that they realized the direction in which his ability lay. Indeed, critical annotations display his powers at their best, and justify his being ranked with Alfasi, Rashi, and Maimonides.
It may, in addition, be safely asserted that Abraham ben David did even more for the study of the Talmud (which for so many centuries was for the Jews their only intellectual sphere) than the celebrated Spanish scholars. Without accusing Maimonides of intending to supplant the study of the Talmud itself by means of his compendium, the "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah," it is nevertheless a fact that if Alfasi and Maimonides had not encountered such keen opposition, rabbinical Judaism would have degenerated into an exclusive study of the legal code, which would have been fatal to any original intellectualdevelopment in a considerable portion of the Jewish people. This danger was not so imminent for those Jews who lived in lands where Arabian culture ruled; for there the study of the Hebrew language and poetry, and especially of the sciences and philosophy, would always have afforded a wide field for intellectual development. It was, therefore, sufficient that the leading Jewish rabbis domiciled in Moorish countries should devote much attention to furnishing a clew to the labyrinth of the Talmud, intricate and perplexing as the latter had become by the addition of the copious post-Talmudic literature of law and custom. Some sort of guide had become imperatively necessary for the practical application of this voluminous and intricate material. But in Christian countries like France and Germany, where the largest communities of Jews existed, throughout the Middle Ages there was no such outlet for Jewish intellectuality as the culture of literature or of the sciences which existed in Moorish Spain. Their own religious law was the only field open to the intellects of the Jews of Germany and northern France.Rashi and RABaD.
That the Jewish mind remained fresh and productive, in spite of the restrictions that hampered the people during the Middle Ages, is due mainly to the efforts of such men as Rashi and Abraham ben David, who utilized the Talmud as an arena in which they could exercise their intellect. In his commentary, Rashi furnished a smooth and well-paved road to the Talmud; while RABaD, by his acute criticism, pointed out the way intelligently and with discrimination. This critical tendency is characteristic of all the writings of RABaD. Thus, in his commentary upon Torat Kohanim (pp. 41a, 71b; compare also Harkavy's "Responsen der Geonim" in "Studien und Mittheilungen," iv. 164), we find the caustic observation that many obscure passages in rabbinical literature owe their obscurity to the fact that occasional explanatory or marginal notes not tending to elucidate the text have been incorporated.Attitude as a Critic.
The real strength of RABaD is shown by his criticisms of the works of various authors. The tone which he employs is also characteristic of his attitude toward the persons under criticism. He treats Alfasi with the utmost respect, almost with humility, and refers to him as "the sun by whose brilliant rays our eyes are dazzled" ("Temim De'im," p. 22a). His language toward Zerahiah ha-Levi is harsh, almost hostile. Though only eighteen years old, this scholar possessed the courage and the ability to write a sharp criticism upon Alfasi, and RABaD refers to him as an immature youth who has the audacity to criticize his teacher. However, in fairness it must be stated that Zerahiah had himself provoked this treatment by sharply criticizing RABaD, and by incorporating into his own work some of RABaD's interpretations without acknowledgment to the author (compare Gross, l.c., 545, and Reifmann, "Toledot," p. 54).Maimonides and RABaD.
Abraham's criticism of the "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah" of Maimonides is also very harsh. This, however, was not due to personal feeling, but to radical differences of view in matters of faith between the two greatest Talmudists of the twelfth century. Maimonides' aim was to bring order into the vast labyrinth of the Halakah by presenting final results in a definite, systematic, and methodical manner. But in the opinion of RABaD this very aim was the principal defect of the work. A legal code which did not state the sources and authorities from which its decisions were derived, and offered no proofs of the correctness of its statements, was, in the opinion of Abraham ben David, entirely unreliable, even in the practical religious life, for which purpose Maimonides designed it. Such a code, he considered, could be justified only if written by a man claiming infallibility—by one who could demand that his assertions be accepted without question. If it had been the intention of Maimonides to stem the further development of the study of the Talmud by reducing it to the form of a code, RABaD felt it his duty to oppose such an attempt, as contrary to the free spirit of rabbinical Judaism, which refuses to surrender blindly to authority.Judaism a Religion of Deed, not of Dogma.
RABaD was thus an opponent to the codification of the Halakah; but he was even more strongly opposed to the construction of a system of dogmas in Judaism, particularly according to the method followed by Maimonides, who often set up the concepts of the Aristotelian philosophy as Jewish theology. Maimonides, for instance, in accordance with his philosophical conviction and in the true spirit of Judaism, declares the incorporeality of God to be a dogma of Judaism, or, as he formulates it, "whosoever conceives God to be a corporeal being is an apostate" ("Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Teshubah," iii. 7). In the circles with which RABaD was connected, a certain mystical anthropomorphistic conception of the Deity was usual; and therefore it was but natural that a statement which practically declared his best friends apostates should arouse his resentment. He, therefore, appended to Maimonides' formula this brief but emphatic criticism: "Why does he call such persons apostates? Men better and worthier than he have held this view, for which they believe they have found authority in the Scriptures and in a confusing view of the Haggadah." The phrase concerning the Haggadah shows that RABaD is himself far from advocating the anthropomorphistic view. His opposition to Maimonides' statement of the doctrine of the incorporeality of God is only directed against its being raised into a dogma. Judaism is to Abraham ben David a religion of deed, and not one of dogmas. His attitude toward the teachings of Maimonides in regard to the future life and the eternity of the world is in harmony with this point of view. According to him the opinion of Maimonides on this question was as distinctly heretical as the corporeality of God from the standpoint of Maimonides; yet he has no word of vituperation for its author, but merely contents himself with recording his difference of opinion (l.c. viii. 2, 8). Thus, the ultra-conservative Talmudist was broader-minded and more tolerant than the greatest of the medieval Jewish philosophers (compare Smolensky, "'Am 'Olam," chap. 13).
Abraham ben David is particularly severe on the attempts of Maimonides to smuggle in his philosophic views under cover of Talmudic passages. To cite one example Sorcery, according to both Biblical and rabbinical law, is, under certain conditions, an offense punishable with death. The opinions in the Talmud on the various acts coming under the category of sorcery differ widely, owing, no doubt, to the fact that it was not practicable to look upon every superstitious practise, from which Talmudic Judaism itself was not entirely free, as a heinous offense. Maimonides, who, from the point of view of his philosophy, looks upon sorcery, astrology, augury, and the like as pure absurdities, decides that even the innocent actions which Scripture narrates of Eliezer (Gen. xxiv 14), and ofJonathan (I Sam. xiv. 8-10) are to be considered as falling under the ban. Here RABaD is not content with merely correcting the statement of Maimonides, but he declares that, in his opinion, Maimonides deserves the ban for the calumnious views he expresses concerning these Biblical personages (Yad. 'Akum, xi. 4). This suffices to explain the principle that actuated Abraham ben David in his intense opposition to Maimonides, and particularly to his "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah," which David himself designates as a great achievement (Kilayim, vi. 2). However, his criticisms are not merely bitter, but wonderfully skilful. They are seldom more than a few lines long; yet the defenders of Maimonides have written without success page after page of laborious reasoning in support of their master. Abraham's remarkable command of the entire Talmudic literature, his extraordinary acuteness of intellect, and his phenomenal critical powers are shown at their best in this criticism of "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah"; and, as he wrote it only a few years before his death, and at an advanced age, it is all the more noteworthy.
The cabalists look upon Abraham ben David as one of the fathers of their system, and this is true to the extent that he was inclined to mysticism, which led him to follow an ascetic mode of life and gained for him the title of "the pious." He frequently spoke of "the holy spirit (or Elijah) disclosing to him God's secrets in his studies" (see his note to "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah," Lulab, viii. 5; Bet ha-Beḥirah, vi. 11), great mysteries known only to the initated ("Yesode ha-Torah," i. 10). It may be asserted with confidence that RABaD was not an enemy to secular science, as many deem him. His works prove that he was a close student of Hebrew philology; and the fact that he encouraged the translation of Baḥya's "Ḥobot ha-Lebabot" (compare Gross, l.c. 1874, p. 165) proves that he was not hostile to philosophy. This philosophic work argues strongly against the anthropomorphistic conception of the Deity; and the favor with which Abraham ben David looked upon it is sufficient ground on which to acquit him of the charge of having held anthropomorphistic views. Moreover, his works show acquaintance with philosophy; for instance, his remark on "Hilkot Teshubah," v., end, is a literal quotation from Honein b. Isaac's "Musre ha-Philosophim," pp. 11, 12—or Loewenthal, p. 39, below—which is extant only in Al-Ḥarizi's translation.
- Gross, in Monatsschrift, 1873-74;
- Renan, Les Rabbins Français (Histoire Littéraire de la France, vol. xxvii.);
- Michael, Or ha-Ḥayyim, No. 79;
- The Catalogues of Steinschneider and Neubauer of the Munich and Oxford libraries, under Abraham ben David.