Samuel ben Hofni
(c. 11th century)
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
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