A Treasury of Jewish Letters: Letters from the Famous and the Humble - Vol. 1

By Franz Kobler | Go to book overview

22
Samuel ha-Nagid's Consolatory Letter on the death of Rabbi Hushiel, the great Talmudist of Kairuan

SAMUEL HA-LEVI BEN JOSEPH IBN NAGDELA ( 993-1055) was the chief ornament of Spanish Jewry in the generation after Hasdai. His rise to fame reads like a story from the Arabian Nights. Originally a small shopkeeper in Malaga, his skill in calligraphy and his command of Arabic procured him employment with the vizier of Habbus, King of Granada. In this position he displayed such ability that on the vizier's death the King made him his first minister. Like Hasdai, Samuel combined political activity with a keen interest in Jewish learning, of which he was himself a distinguished representative. He composed Talmudic works, and a dictionary of biblical Hebrew, he collected the works of the Geonim and, above all, he excelled as a poet. Some of his hymns were incorporated into the liturgy of the Synagogue, and his 'Ben Mishle' (Son of the Proverbs) became an inspiration for many generations. In virtue of his position and attainments, his fellow-Jews always referred to him as Ha-Nagid or the Leader.

The letter reproduced below was one of condolence written to Rabbi Hananel of Kairuan on the occasion of the death of his father, Rabbi Hushiel ben Elhanan. According to the report of the historian Abraham ibn Daud, Hushiel was one of the four Babylonian Rabbis who had been sent to the West, but were captured by Abd el-Rahman's admiral, Ibn Rumahis, and, after being sold into slavery, were ransomed by the Jews of various Mediterranean communities. Thus Hushiel had become head of the Talmudical academy at Kairuan at the same time that another of the ransomed Babylonians, Moses ben Enoch, founded the Talmudical academy in Cordova. The historical truth of this story has been questioned; there is, however, no doubt that the rise of the Spanish Talmudic school coincided with Hushiel's activity. He was the great authority on Jewish law in North Africa, and his son Hananel became a worthy successor of his father.

-134-

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