R. Zerakhyah ben Itzhak Ha-Levi
by Shlomo Gurevich*
R. Zerakhyah ben Yitzhak Ha-Levi (Ha-Gerondi),
also known as RaZaH, RaZBI and "Baal Ha-Maor" (author of the book "Ha-Maor")
was born about 1135 in the town of Gerona, Spain - that's why "Ha-Gerondi" (Geroner)
is sometimes added to his name - and died after 1186. He was a famous rabbi,
Torah and Talmud commentator and a poet. He was born into a known and
respected family called Ha-Izhari (in accordance with the family origin). In
his youth he moved to Provence and studied with the scholars of Narbonne
(one of them was the famous R. Moshe ben Yosef). At the age of 19 he wrote a
piyut in Aramic and devoted himself to halakhic problems.
For many years thereafter he lived in Lunel (studying with R. Meshullam
ben Yakov), but the conflicts, disputes and quarrels constantly splitting
the community forced him to leave. R. Yehudah ben Shaul ibn Tiv'on said of
R. Zerakhyah: "he was unique in his generation and wiser than I", and
praised him for his elaborate style of writing. R. Yehudah sent his son
Shmuel to study with R. Zerakhyah.
R. Zerakhyah knew Arabic well and quickly
absorbed the disciplines studied in Provence, but from his writings one
could easily feel the tension that existed between him and his surroundings.
Fame of a scholar and expert on halakhic problems came to him thanks
to his book "Ha-Maor" which was completed in the 1180s. The book is divided
into 2 parts: "Ha-Maor Ha-Gadol" and "Ha-Maor Ha-Katan". In the first part
the issues connected to Talmudic tractates "Brakhot", "Mo'ed" and "Chullin"
are discussed, and in the second part - "Nashim" and "Nezikin". In this book
Ha-RaZaH consistently and critically objected to R. Yitzhak Alphasi’s views,
but at the same time held him and his works in high regard.
These writings belong to a special kind of
Rabbinical literature - so-called "objections" raised by the scholars of
Provence against attempts by the scholars from "Eretz Islam" to force the
adoption of their halakhot and commentaries. From this point of view,
R. Zerakhyah stands together with Ha-RaBaD (R. Avraham ben David) of
Posquieres, known because of his objections to RaMBaM (Maimonides), though
even between them there was sufficient difference of opinion. R. Zerakhyah,
in many cases, prefers the variants of commentaries supplemented by RaShI,
and, to a great extent, he relies upon the methods of the scholars of France
in commentaries on Gemarah. From this point of view, the works of R.
Zerakhyah reflect a mingling of the school of halakha and the drasha of the scholars of Spain and France not uncommon in Provence.
Additionally, R. Zerakhyah wrote the book "Sefer
Ha-Tsava", which explained 13 principles of drasha, used in Gemarah,
and composed various halakhot related to shcheta,
tehorat ha-mishpacha, etc.
At this stage, major differences in opinion
emerged between R. Zerakhyah and Ha-RaBaD who wrote objections to "Ha-Maor".
R. Zerakhyah replied in kind, writing objections to RaBaD's work "Baalei Ha-Nefesh"
which were full of sarcasm and personal attacks. He won in the argument over
the most of the issues. "Ha-Maor" influenced greatly the following
generations of rabbis and scholars, and some of them wrote responsa
in his defense, and among them - RaMBaN (Nahmanides), who previously had
been his irreconcilable critic. Even HA-RABAD, who outlived his friend and
rival by 13 years, softened his tone after R. Zerakhyah's death and wrote
about him with great respect, criticizing him only on the substance of
issues under consideration.
The poetic heritage of R. Zerakhyah has been
implemented in various piyutim included in Sephardic machzorim.
*The above is an
extraction from the internet version of a book written and published by
Shlomo Gurevich which is now
English as well as in
"Gurevich, Gurovich, Gurvich, Gorvich, Gurvitz, Horowitz and others. History
of A Great Family" (Haifa, 1999, ISBN 965-222-971-7)