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Saʿadya's Hermeneutical Principles? T-S Ar. 50.159

Zvi Stampfer

Most readers of the FOTM (Fragment Of The Month) are familiar with Dr Solomon Schechter as the founder of the Cambridge T-S Genizah Collection that bears his name (together with Dr Charles Taylor). Schechter is also known as a researcher who published a great many articles and books in the field of Jewish studies. In this FOTM, I would like to connect these two areas of interest and try to solve a riddle related to his first academic publication. This will be conducted through a new suggested reading of Genizah fragment T-S Ar. 50.159.

In 1885, three years after his arrival in London, Schechter published his first academic paper. It was an article on an unpublished manuscript from the Bodleian Library.1 The work in this article deals with the thirteen Talmudical hermeneutical principles (= Middot she-ha-Tora Nidreshet bahen). The manuscript bears the title: ‘Commentary by our master and rabbi, Saʿadya Gaon’. Another piece of information was mentioned in the manuscript: that this work is a translation from Arabic to Hebrew, and the name of the medieval translator was Nahum.

Professor Moritz Steinschneider, the great bibliographer and orientalist, had already mentioned this manuscript in 1882.2 Hence, Schechter prepared an edition, published it and dedicated the publication to the memory of his benefactor Nathaniel Montefiore.

Steinschneider, as a cautious researcher, hesitated to accept the attribution to Saʿadya Gaon, even though it appears in the manuscript. Steinschneider wrote: ‘angeblich von Saʿadya Gaon, übersetzt von nachom [wohl ha-Maarabi]’, i.e. ‘Allegedly by Saʿadya Gaon, translated by Nahum [al-Maghrebi]’. Despite Steinschneider’s hesitation, Schechter was sure that Saʿadya Gaon was the author of this work. Steinschneider was at that time nearly 75 years old and well known as a prestigious scholar. Schechter was, at that time, in his early academic career, taking his first steps into the world of Hebrew manuscripts. Was it beginner’s self-confidence? Time will tell. Schechter argued that one should trust the information supplied by the author or the scribe of the manuscript. He also discovered that a 14th century Jewish scholar mentioned one of Saʿadya's opinions, and the same opinion appears in this work.

More than a decade later in 1896, Schechter brought the Cairo Genizah to Cambridge University Library and gained his glory. But in 1921, Jacob Mann found a list of Saʿadya's writings in the Genizah, prepared by his sons in 953.3 There was no mention of this particular work in the list. The claim of Schechter that Saʿadya was the author of this ‘commentary to the 13 hermeneutical principles’ was again put in doubt.

Time has passed and Schechter’s article was re-published again and again, with no real advance in our knowledge about the work.

Recently I came across the Genizah fragment T-S Ar. 50.159, which may shed light on this riddle.4 The fragment is part of Saʿadya Gaon’s commentary on Leviticus 1:2, the very beginning of the book. Saʿadya explains the verse by using a pair of the hermeneutical principles. Then he wrote: ‘These two principles are part of the thirteen (principles), which the sages said that they practice in (Jewish) tradition. I shall now explain to you (may God help you) their meaning. But first I will open with an introduction’.

This means that Saʿadya integrated his work on 13 principles into his biblical commentary. This explains why the work was not mentioned in Saʿadya's list of publications: it was not originally a work that stands on its own. The extrication of this work from its original place happened a few generations after the time of Saʿadya, apparently by the medieval translator.

Careful reading of the fragment uncovers another piece of information. In this fragment Saʿadya recommends his reader to study another work of his: ‘Kitāb al-radd ʿala [Anan]’ i.e. ‘The book on the refutation of Anan’. This is an early work by Saʿadya, written at the age of 23, in which he fought against the ideas of the proto-Qaraite scholar Anan Ben David. In this book Saʿadya claims that tradition is the only source for judicial interpretation.

In the next stage of my research I managed to identify, transcribe, and translate the entire work of the 13 principles by Saʿadya from the original Judaeo-Arabic, which has survived in three copies in the Genizah.

So it has happened that 135 years after Schechter published his first article and determined that Saʿadya was likely the author of the ‘commentary to the 13 Talmudical hermeneutical principles’, we now have in the Genizah the evidence that he was right from the beginning.


MS T-S Ar.50.159 verso

Saʿadya Gaon’s commentary on Leviticus 1, T-S Ar.50.159 verso

Transcription of the relevant lines of T-S Ar. 50.159v

 1. ...

 2. והאתאן כלתאן מן י"ג אלתי קאל אלאולון אנהא גרנאהא

 3.  גאריה פי אלסנן ואבין לך אסעדך אללה [מע]ניהא ואקדם

 4. קבל דלך מקדמה והי אן אלחכמ' ז'ל' לם [יסתעמ]ל^[ו]

 5. אלקיאס פקט פי שי מן אלפרץ' לאנהם ל^[א] [.]מ^סת[...]

 6. פירגעון אלי קיאס עקולהם ואראיה[ם וא]נמא הם קום

 7. נאקלין ען אלרסול וחמאל אתארה פאד כאן אלאמר כדאך 

 8. פק[ד א]ס^תגנו ען יגהדון אראהם או י^[סת]עמלון 

 9. מק[איסת]הם ואיצ'א לאנהם אן אסתע^[מלו כ]ד^לך אפסך

 10. עליה[ם מ]א נקלוה ען אלנבי כמא שר^[חנ]א^ פי כתאב א^ל^ רד 

 11. עלי [...]ב^ אלקיאם וקלנא אן אלקיאס יחכם בנקץ'

 12. אח[כאם מנצוצה] פי אלכתאב וקד קאל אלחכמ' איצ'א מתל דלך

13. [...   ]ערפונא בהדא

14. [... ] אלי פסך מ'א' שי ממא

15. [.... ]מר עלי מא וצפת פמא

16. [...   שלוש עש]ר^ה^ מצות התורה נדרשת פאן

17. [... ]ן ואל כוארג הדה אלמסלה

18. [... נ]קלוה אהל אלגמאעה מן אלדין

19. [... ]פקה אל[..] ש^ר^חה אלעלמא אנמא

20. [... ]ון אן ינסאג לה כדלך 

21. [... י]ג^תהדון ואנא כאשף הדא ומוצחה

22. [... ]מנהא מא הו גארי עלי קיאס

23. [... ]ואלמג'אלטה ואלכיאנה ומא

24. [... ]כמא אן אלעקל יסוי בינהם 

25. [...     ]ק^יאס אלעקל והי עקובה אלסארק

26. [ ]ט בינהמא ועלי אנהם פי אלעקל



[1] Beth Talmud: Zeitschrift fur rabbinische Literatur und Geschichte, 4 (תרמ׳׳ה), p. 236ff.

[2Hebräische Bibliographie, Blätter für neuere und ältere Literatur des Judenthums, Berlin 1882, s.134 .

[3] Jacob Mann, ‘A Fihrist of Saʿadya’s Works’, JQR 11.4 (1921), pp. 423–428. 

[4] The fragment was published some years ago by Moses Zucker (‘Fragments of the “Kitāb Taḥṣīl Al-Sharā'i' Al-Samā'īyah”’, Tarbiz, 41 [1972], pp. 375–376). Zucker did not enjoy the optimal conditions that we now have, and this caused him some misreading and misinterpretation. Zucker already suspected that Saʿadya located this work in his commentary on Leviticus (as he suggested in the Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 23 [1954], p. 47, note 9), but did no succeed in establishing this notion.


Cite this article

Stampfer, Z. (2020). Saʿadya's Hermeneutical Principles? T-S Ar. 50.159. [Genizah Research Unit, Fragment of the Month, October 2020].


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