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Samuel ben Hofni

(c. 11th century)


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Samuel ben Hofni, thought to be the last gaon of Sura, apparently was the next-to-last gaon. He came originally from Pumpedita's academy, but he was not accepted as gaon there because Sherira's son, Hai, was appointed. There was the possibility of some behind-the-scenes political fighting as there had been between ibn Abitur and Chanoch ben Moses, but the crisis was resolved: Hai married Ben Hofni's daughter, and Ben Hofnil became gaon of Sura in 997 CE..

Although most of Ben Hofnil's works are lost, his reputation survives because other scholars have made several references to his work. Some fragments have been found in the Cairo Geniza.

Ben Hofnil possessed an orderly, analytical mind which is reflected both in his talmudic and exegetical works. He shows a special predilection for systematic, numbered classification of subjects under discussion. Ben Hofnil wrote the first introduction to the Talmud, summarizing and classifying its basic principles. This work is mentioned by early scholars and is currently being recovered from the Geniza.

Ben Hofnil wrote a book of precepts based on the commandments and some 15 other works on various subjects are known because fragments of some of them have been published. Ben Hofnil translated and wrote a commentary on the Torah in Arabic, which was used widely by Abraham ibn Ezra, Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon, Bachya ben Asher and the unknown author of the Midrash ha-Gadol.

In the Bible commentary, Ben Hofnil employed the above-mentioned method of classification in elaborating on concepts, on meaning of individual words, and on implied talmudic principles. This frequently led him to digressions far from the subject under immediate discussion. His commentary is basically rooted in talmudic-midrashic tradition. At times he offers explanations different from those mentioned in the above sources. He was not well-versed in Hebrew grammar.

Ben Hofnil, well acquainted with the classical philosophic writings, was a rationalist. In one connection, his son-in-law Hai speaks disparagingly of him for this reason. Maimonides and his son Abraham refer to his philosophic concepts in support of their own ideas. Ben Hofnil makes use of the ideas of the philosophers in his Bible commentary, though he does not quote them directly. There is some uncertainty as to whether he wrote a specific polemical work against the heretics of his time. His books, however, contain direct and indirect refutation of the arguments advanced by numerous skeptical or atheistic groups. Ben Hofnil died in 1013 CE.


Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage

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